The interplay of the independent media and radical politics.
The independent media has a distinctive importance in times like the present when we are searching and experimenting with new ways of organising for social transformation; when parties have lost their monopoly as political subjects; when movements and a variety of autonomous initiatives are inventing new ways of being political actors. The radical media provides especially creative tools for making connections between diverse kinds of resistance, for exploring and spreading new alternatives, for exposing oppressive power, for debating what is to be done. Il Manifesto was perhaps the first and the most impressive example of a media initiative that was also - in fact first and foremost - a political project aiming to transform politics and in particular open up left political institutions to a creative relationship with social movements. Across Europe political activists, especially of the `68 generation were influenced by it's example. Certainly, nearly thirty years later, in 1995 when we - a far more politically and generationally eclectic group of journalists and activists than the Manifesto Group - founded the monthly magazine Red Pepper to represent, debate and promote the new politics that was bursting out of the confines of party politics in the UK, Il Manifesto was at the back of many of our minds.
But the cultural environment of the 90's was very different: in some ways cultural radicalism had moved ahead of political radicalism. The only chance of providing a voice for an increasingly disenfranchised left was if we found a new cultural form: this search led to the rather untypical name for a left publication, to a very confident and innovative design, to ensuring that the talented young people who volunteered to work for the magazine were given real scope to influence its development. We knew we had to break from the dusty atmosphere of marginality and obscurantism that has been a debilitating characteristic of the radical left in Britain ( a product of an electoral system that has forced this left to choose beween marginality, outside the Labour Party and electoral politics or subordination and, effectively, imprisonment, within).
We found that a media initiative, launched at around the same time as the beginnings of widespread use of the web, provided much more far reaching possibilities for political innovation than relying on the conventional methods of bringing people together - conferences and so on. Through the pages of a magazine that itself is run by a group from diverse parts of the left, people are able to `meet' who previously knew little of each other's existence: for example, the first alter-globalisation activists and trade unionists resisting privatisation; radical Asian organisers accused of terrorism and communities defending public housing; pan- European networks organising against immigration laws and old age pensioners campaigning for their dignity. Shared values and a mutual interest in communication has enabled a wider diversity of voices to come together than would at the time have ever come to a conventional gathering of the left.
The process of producing a publication that has no guaranteed party readership (in contrast to a party publication) places a high value on curiosity and reaching out to discover resistance and alternatives emerging beneath the conventional radar; the understanding of these sub-political process is crucial to the effectiveness of any radical strategy and we found that the independent media can develop the skills to do it. At the same time we found that it was also a tool for developing the public identity of a radical left that could evade the crude attempts of Tony Blair and New Labour to dismiss and marginalize the left as `old fashioned'. By breaking out of the predictable and obscurantist cultural forms typical of much of the left in UK, we could help to symbolise the possibility of alternative to New Labour's market driven modernisation.
In our own struggle in and against the market we can never stand still. The entirely commercial distribution system in Britain, monopolised by one distribution company, W.H.Smiths, makes it extremely difficult for any radical publication to be available in newsagents, in the way that Carta and Manifesto are available in newsagents across Italy. For us to keep alive (we are permanently precarious) we have always to be looking outwards for new possibilities. Just recently trade unionists and other groups campaigning against privatisation collaborated to produce special supplements analysing the governments strategy, reporting on the resistance and presenting alternatives to the invasion of our health and education systems by US and other corporations. The supplements became a part of the magazine but they were also distributed widely amongst trade union members and through other campaigning groups, hopefully spreading an interest in Red Pepper and the other political issues that we present.
Another case where we broke from routine (creating for ourselves a lot of extra work in pursuing an exciting adventure!), was in our work on Eurotopia with Carta, the Spanish magazine El Veijo Topo, the Greek journals Epochi and Avgi and other radical publications across Europe. Again the interplay between a political project and the use of the media as a special kind of tool was built into the project. The political context was the European Social Forum and the increasing awareness of the need for Europe wide political organisation. It is media and information technology tools that are enabling us, through the trial and error of an experiment, to construct a project which is simultaneously European and also rooted in, and cross fertilising, national specificities. It began as a supplement edited in a collaboration between the magazines and produced more or less simultaneously in different languages in those magazines that chose to publish it (some just produced one or two articles, others distributed it to their e-mail lists). Now that we have established at least amongst a core of magazines, a mutual understanding and rapport, we can be more flexible, treating the idea of Eurotopia as a concept of pan- European media collaboration which can take a variety of forms. Through our presence and ties with the European Social Forum, other actors have joined us - just recently public sector trade unionists - seeing the opportunity of a ready made (if somewhat precarious) pan-European tool of communication which would be extremely useful for their transnational campaigns. So at present we are working with public sector unions and other groups resisting privatisation, from across the continent to produce an issue of Eurotopia which will hopefully be produced by partner magazines and also be distributed widely by trade unions and other campaigns. At the same time, we are trying to develop a system of exchanging articles, in this way improving the quality and the transnational content of all of us. Another idea inspired by what we have learnt of each others' realities through the Eurotopia process is to publish in depth explorations of the political and cultural peculiarities of particular countries. Red Pepper is planning a special focus on Italy: the history and debates of the Italian left seem to me to have a special importance for whole of Europe. The aim with Eurotopia is to take the interplay of media tools and the development of new political possibilities to a new level: to develop a European, and more generally transnational consciousness with strong roots in our own local - and not just national - realities. We are having to overcome deep barriers, the barriers of language being a crucial one. They are problems which an effective transformative politics has to face and solve. The independent media has possibilities which conventional political instruments, most notably political parties, have traditionally lacked. If we can somehow avoid becoming too stuck in our habitual ways it provides a flexibility and openness which is vital for strengthening the networks and common values of a new politics.
This article was written for Carta, where will be published in Italian in their next edition