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Opinion

Opinion: The power of informal networks

In his latest book, historian Niall Ferguson discusses the way networks influence history. This can help us understand the conflicts in the world today, such as the protests in Hong Kong, says Alexander Görlach.

Official hierarchies run from top to bottom — this is the core thesis of The Square and the Tower, historian Niall Ferguson's latest book. He argues this is how states, companies, the church and the military operate. Ferguson, however, puts the focus on another type of network — informal networks that are not hierarchical. For a historian, it is more difficult to uncover these networks because the archives where they are traditionally researched are created by the kind of people who embody hierarchies. In this context, "informal" means who is connected with whom, and who is politically advising whom. This does not mean cronyism, a form of denunciation used by people who do not have informal networks, but legitimate contacts that build up over time and feed on the increasing trust of those involved.

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The age of informal networks 

The era in which we live could be called the age of informal networks. What used to be a matter for smaller circles, like the network of the Freemasons, an example which Ferguson refers to in his book, is now on a global scale. Like other social networks, Facebook thrives on enabling people to organize and find each other on the basis of the interests that connect them. That is why it is impossible for China's Communist autocratic leadership in Beijing to contain the protests in Hong Kong

Prof. Dr. Dr. Alexander Görlach (Harvard University/D. Elmes)

Academic Alexander Görlach

According to President Xi Jinping's antiquated logic, arresting democracy activists and bringing in tanks is enough to suppress protests and the cry for freedom. This was still possible in 1989, when the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square were violently put to an end by tanks, shells and batons. The current democracy movement in Hong Kong has no leader to arrest. The protests are not centrally organized. What those who take part have in common, the millions from different walks of life, with different backgrounds and life stories, are the values that this movement shares: Freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Read more: Tiananmen Square Massacre: Where does China stand, 30 years on?

These are, broadly speaking, also the factors that are keeping alive the protest movements in Russia and Turkey. People can now articulate their values and the vision of how they imagine living their lives, in a way that, due to technical limitations, only the elite used to be able to. This is how they are articulating their demands to those who run the country. The fact that hierarchies can now change and transform into meandering, diverse entities makes it more difficult to implement policies and show leadership, even for democracies with well-established top-down processes. The number of voices that are speaking out publicly has increased considerably compared with the past. Collecting data, determining its relevance and ultimately interpreting it was already difficult in analogue times. It has not become easier. 

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New parameters

But this does not pose a threat to the existence of democracy. What needs to be reconsidered and redefined here are the parameters of participation and representation. It is clear to everyone nowadays that an Electoral College, such as the one in the US, is no longer necessary. This dates from a time when elected representatives, the electoral delegates, galloped to Washington on horseback to convey how the vote had gone. Even democratic institutions can be very persistent and resistant change. The difference from dictatorships and autocracies is that these operate exclusively according to a hierarchy. 

In a world based on human rights, in which there is the fundamental concept that all citizens in a democracy have equal rights, it is only logical that all should see themselves as equal communicators, on a par with those who are representing them politically. China is deliberately trying to undermine this idea of individual human rights and replace it with another, purely economic idea. In short, Beijing claims that because it has freed the poor from poverty, they must be forever grateful. Having human rights is to have something on the table to eat.

Read more: Hong Kong crisis — What you need to know

In Bertold Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" he wrote "grub first, then ethics." But this was also in a hierarchically organized world. Where there is free will, people create bonds and define goals that they are committed to implementing. The fact that China relies on total surveillance (and has the means and the know-how to do so) can only be interpreted as a compelling consequence of the de-hierarchization of power structures.

Those in power in Beijing, Moscow and Ankara will lose out over time if democracies learn to use and embrace this new type of network more quickly than dictators can suppress it through surveillance and censorship. 

Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge as well as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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