Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Seminar 5 Position Statement: Dr.Matthew Fluck

The transformative potential of transparency

Dr Matthew Fluck

Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster

International politics appears to be defined by its opacity – by mutual uncertainty between states and the absence of mechanisms for democratic scrutiny. This seems to point to the transformative potential of transparency. Ever since the ‘Perpetual Peace’ essays of Kant and Bentham, scholars and practitioners have looked to transparency as means of creating a fairer and more peaceful world politics.[i] With the technical ability to share information on an unprecedented scale, it now seems that such hopes might become a reality. A plethora of international organisations, governments, and NGOs appear to be working towards this goal.
This suggests the importance of two related questions. First, given the range of actors pursuing it, should we think of ‘transparency’ as a single concept? Second, to what extent can it actually live up to its transformative promise?

What is transparency?

Regarding the first question, it is possible to identify at least three conceptions of transparency implicit in the work of scholars, practitioners, and activists. In the first, ‘transparency-as-disclosure’, the public gains access to information held by institutions whilst keeping its rights to privacy and secrecy. Its power relative to these institutions thereby increases.[ii] In a second, related conception –   ‘transparency-as-information’ – information is shared between formally equal actors, facilitating the efficient or stable operation of the system in which they interact. This conception is apparent in rationalist accounts of the states system or economics.[iii]  These first two conceptions are unified by a common assumption that knowledge can be understood in terms of the transmission of information. A third conception – transparency-as-publicity – involves a different epistemology and understanding of political interaction. In this case, transparency involves participants’ mutual openness about reasons and motivations in a continual process of rational communication.[iv] Whilst it is much less intuitive than the other two conceptions, this understanding is implicit in some cases of activism, for which the goal is less access to data and more the creation of a more responsive and open form of politics.

Can transparency live up to its transformative promise?

Regarding the second question, there is reason for caution once transparency is viewed in historical context. Transparency was once what, following Theodor Adorno, we might term an ‘emphatic concept’ – it was not simply descriptive, but reflects the desire for a revolutionary political change. In Bentham’s day, the ideal of transparency confronted a form of politics – including international politics – grounded in personalised power. Most individuals were simply not considered worthy of knowledge concerning ‘matters of state’. The pursuit of transparency was therefore the pursuit of revolutionary change.
The persistent secrecy of international politics tends to distract from the fact that it generally now occurs on a fundamentally different basis – between bureaucratic states and institutions relying on the creation and circulation of vast amounts of data. In theory, within states, all citizens are potentially recipients of this information. In some spheres of activity – e.g. that of consumers in the free market – universal access appears desirable. Even top secret data is accessed by thousands of individuals with the appropriate qualifications and clearance. In a context where channelling data to the right quarters is vital to sub-systems of governance, it is less clear that transparency – at least understood as information or disclosure – can fulfil the role of emphatic concept. Rather than pointing to a new politics, it might reflect acceptance of our pre-designated roles as items and recipients of data. This is apparent in the international sphere, where transparency offers easy consolation in the absence of more substantive forms of empowerment.
Of course, transparency is useful in dealing with specific problems involving corruption or oppression. However, in the forms in which it is generally understood – transparency-as-disclosure and transparency-as-information – its pursuit is unlikely to generate the responsive, peaceful international politics with which it is often associated. The best hope of reviving a more radical conception might lie in identifying those dimensions of current calls which still play an emphatic role. It is here that the concept of transparency-as-publicity identified above might be useful. This understanding suggests that transparency does not simply involve access to data but, more importantly, forms of political interaction which have yet to be achieved.

[i] Bentham, J (1838-1843) ‘A Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace’. In: Bowring J (ed) The Works of Jeremy Bentham Volume 2. Edinburgh: William Tait, 546-556; Kant, I (1970a) ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’. In: Reiss, H (ed) Kant’s Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 93-130.
[ii] Buchanan, A and Keohane, RO (2006) ‘The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions’. Ethics & International Affairs, 20(4): 405-37.
[iii] Fearon, JD (1995) ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’. International Organization, 49(3): 379-414; International   Monetary   Fund (2012)   “Fiscal   Transparency,  Accountability,   and   Risk.” http://www.imf.org/external/np/pp/eng/2012/080712.pdf
[iv] Linklater, A (1998) The Transformation of Political Community. Cambridge: Polity.

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