The Internet and the Transformation of the Political Process: MAPAM, a Case Study

Amos Davidowitz <amos@mapam.org.il>
Communications Network Coordinator
MAPAM (United Workers Party)
4 Itamar Ben Avi
POB 1777
Tel Aviv 61016, Israel
Tel.: 972-3-6972111 (office)
Fax: 972-3-6910504 (office)
Tel.: 972-8-9270653 (home)
Fax: 972-8-9270736 (home)

Background

The Intifada in the occupied territories, and my service as a reserve army officer in the Israeli army, brought about a realization that it is an unacceptable luxury in Israel not to take a clear political stance, a stance that includes joining and being active in a political party. I therefore went "party shopping" and decided to join MAPAM. MAPAM is a socialist party, left of the labor party.

On becoming an active member and taking on responsibilities within the party I realized that the organizational structure of the party was not functioning as well as I thought it could. Initially I thought the problem was managerial, but as I studied the issues in depth, I realized that the issues at hand were more profound.

Political parties around the world are a relatively new phenomenon that are a development of the Industrial Revolution. Each one addresses the problems created by the new social order according to its own political philosophy. MAPAM, as such, was operating according to this model. A second aspect of this is that classical political parties, of which MAPAM is one, are a manifestation of the great social movements of the beginning of the century. All this involves a second wave organizational structure.

Realizing this, it became clear that the problem was not managerial but an inappropriate structural system. In second-wave political parties, the main issues were the control of the means of production, labor, and natural resources. A second-wave party provided THE ANSWER: socialism, capitalism, Marxism, fascism, assuming that if everyone followed its dictates all the world's problems would be solved. Needless to say, all of the above agendas didn't bring about the utopian era they heralded.

The question is: What are the main issues in a third-wave party? It seems to me that if a second-wave party centered its activities around production, labor, and resources in a centralized hierarchical structure, a modern party should deal with information, communications, media, and services in a more open, interactive and distributive system, a system that needs the means of information processing and distribution. Only a computer network such as the Internet can provide the necessary vehicle for this.

If in the past, the social movements offered a comprehensive total world view that promised an end to poverty, war, and social injustice, parties representing these ideas could muster peoples' support around the world. People were willing to go to Spain and join the International Brigade or participate in the massive social revolutions of the first half of the century. Now parties in all the industrialized nations are witness to a decline in party membership and a deep mistrust by the body politic of the political system and its politicians.

The question is: What does a political party have to offer an individual, or group, in the contemporary world? I see that a party can provide three main functions to the individual:

  1. Information sharing--Since the main resource in the information age is information the access to and dissemination of it is an essential political commodity. Allowing the individual to make informed decisions about his/her life and protecting him/herself from the powers that be.
  2. Services--An individual acting within his/her environment and wanting to take a stance on any given issue, whether personal, community, local, or national, could benefit from, and might need services that should be provided by the party, such as legal services, financial services, and lobbying.
  3. Access to political power--A party has to offer access to the decision making process and can function as an advocate within the political power structure.

Since the party can no longer rely on traditional party membership, it is necessary for the party to create strategic alliances with local and national grassroots organizations to maintain its standing within the political arena and to keep abreast with the real issues facing the populace. To do so the party should offer the same three functions:

  1. Information,
  2. Services, and
  3. Access to political power, while adding one important function
  4. Space, meaning cyberspace and physical space.

Cyberspace means access to the Internet and the party's internal net. Physical space means a place to hold meetings, receive faxes, make coffee, and fulfill the social aspects that are part of, and need to be part of, every human community. The Internet allows all this to happen while keeping the community leadership within the physical community. This is the high touch complement to balance the high tech of the Internet.

We divide information into four categories:

  1. DATA--all the input from any source.
  2. INFORMATION--processed data that is relevant to the issue at hand.
  3. KNOWLEDGE--The organization of the information which produces diverse solutions and options to the particular political problem.
  4. WISDOM--The world view filter through which the possible options will be integrated producing a coherent productive solution.

MAPAM case study--convention

A window of opportunity presented itself with the 11th annual MAPAM convention in March of 1995. Among the issues to be discussed were the relations between the Israeli Jewish community and the Jewish community living outside of Israel (the Diaspora). Being one of the convention organizers, I heard that MAPAM was to invite a handful of delegates from the Diaspora. I asked, "Why not invite all of the Diaspora to participate in the convention?" and received the answer: "How?" When I said "Via the Internet," I got an echo: "The what?" I presented a proposal and modest budget, which was accepted. The organizing committee was afraid that the convention was going to be a public relations flop and saw the Internet connection as a way to enhance its P.R. potential.

The convention started two months in advance of the actual date via a listserve regarding the topics that were to be discussed at the actual convention. The listserve eventually had 250 participants with every continent being represented. Material from the listserve was incorporated into the final convention discussion.

Actual attendance at the 11th annual MAPAM convention was 350 delegates. The first 24 hours of the "Cyberconvention" saw 1,200 hits. The first month after the convention, there were about 20,000 hits from around the world, including some Arab states. The Secretary General of the party asked "But how many vote in Israeli elections?" After a quick check, the answer was 6,500. He was convinced.

As far as I know, this was the first interactive political party convention held anywhere in the world. All the Israeli press, print and electronic, local and national, radio, cable, and television, covered the convention and its innovative use of the Net.

The Cyberconvention included all the background material about the convention and the issues being discussed. It included biographies of all MAPAM's Members of Knesset (MK= members of Israel's Parliament) along with sound bites in English, Arabic, and Hebrew welcoming the visitors. We opened talk channels and Internet Relay Chats (IRC) with our MKs. There was simultaneous translation of Prime Minister Rabin's speech, along with other speeches and committee decisions.

The interactive part of the convention, talk and IRC, was hampered because the phone company went on strike the first day. We kept up an e-mail connection between our Knesset Members and the Net participants which eventually led up to some skin meetings in Israel when these people happened to visit the country.

To make sure that interest would not die within the party, I connected one of our MKs to the Net. He immediately sought, through Finger, to find relatives of his who were dispersed after World War II. He found 20 family members. He was hooked.

In his parliamentary work, he used the Net extensively. One instance was during a discussion in the Knesset health committee about a certain type of medication. He brought all the information he could find on the Net regarding this drug that negated the data brought by the health department, thus bringing about the overruling of their recommendation. Another instance was when the development of a program for high risk youth was being voted upon. He entered the discussion with a kilo and a half of documentation on such programs he downloaded from the Net and said "Friends, this is what is being done today around the world regarding these programs," thus causing a reevaluation of the project.

MAPAM case study--ongoing

Because of the success of the of the use of the Net at the 11th Annual Convention, the party leadership saw the need and the potential of using electronic information technologies. Within a few months, we shifted from three ancient XTs to a Novel local area network (LAN) consisting of 486s, pentiums, scanners, and an Internet connection. A computer was installed in every office.

Along with these hardware changes came a proposal I brought to the executive committee of MAPAM on how to utilize these technologies and in effect transform the way we do politics. The proposal was accepted by the executive committee and consists of the following items:

  1. All MAPAM branches (60, one in every town in Israel, including Arab villages) will receive a computer with a modem and printer. Key figures within the party will be given computers at home.
  2. All itineraries of party functionaries and representatives are to be posted on an internal Internet network.
  3. The protocols of all party committees will be posted on the internal network. More so, we intend to conduct these committees via the Net therefore allowing wider grassroots participation without the hindrance of geographical limitations.
  4. MAPAM has set up a computer and Internet training facility to provide "information have-nots" with the proficiency to participate independently in the information network revolution.
  5. MAPAM intends to develop its international connections via the Net, for example, the Socialist International and the Parliament of European Socialists.

On a larger scale what we envision is that the local branches will provide to individuals and groups the four functions mentioned above. This will provide MAPAM with valuable information:

  1. MAPAM will be able to identify and develop local leadership.
  2. MAPAM will be provided with an ongoing interactive link to the real life needs of the members of the different communities. Such a link will provide for more effective political action and an up-to-date party platform.
  3. MAPAM will be able to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of all its members, regardless of geography.

All this means that there will be two evolutionary steps: The first is that the center of activity shifts from the party headquarters in Tel Aviv to the local communities. Instead of a second-wave system that provided THE ANSWER, the Tel Aviv site becomes a node that provides information and services to the local community nodes where the main party activities are happening.

The second shift is from a party mentality that was based on the great social movements that entailed sacrifice on the part of the individual for the party to a party whose function is to provide real solutions to real people with real needs.

Realizing its own dilemma MAPAM took a look at the data that was available, sifted through it to find the relevant information, and organized it in such a way that produced a fresh political understanding and knowledge. The options developed allowed the creation of a fresh political wisdom. In turn we produced a coherent plan that we hope will allow us to provide a relevant political party to the individual and organizations.

All this can happen only through the use of the Internet.

The system was to be set up and in use for the elections in November of 1996. And then:

In the meanwhile, in organizing this year's primary elections, computers and electronic information systems played a major role. In setting up the structure for the national elections in 1996, everyone demanded a computer as opposed to the three XTs of 1992, making the environment all the more ready for the changes ahead.