Networked Politics: conclusion

01 January 2007
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Lingering thoughts and unanswered questions on Networked Politics.

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Lingering thoughts and unanswered questions

At the end of the Barcelona seminar, we agreed to write down the two most vivid thoughts and the two unanswered questions that remained with us. Here is a summary of what people said and also an indication of how we hope to develop this project as a resource for similar or related discussions doubtless happening all over the world. There was an unusual intensity about these discussions. This was influenced, perhaps, by the unusual mix of common values, very different histories and involvements combined with a shared sense of the risks and possibilities of trying to move forward on a very uncertain terrain. Branka Curcic saw it as: “a struggle for new solutions and new models of political organisation – models or forms that do not yet exist or are necessarily to come. It is a struggle that does not say what these new models are but tries to identify intermediate solutions and the potential that exists, and to do so bears in mind the heritage of what social and political movements have achieved or hoped to achieve in the past”.

As far as potential is concerned, several people’s memories focused on different dimensions of what Marco Berlinguer described as “A stronger sensibility and a more ‘dramatic’ perception about what I would call the world of de-institutionalised relationships, growing everywhere outside formal, institutional, organised relations, far away from the official world of politics”. Ezequiel Adamovsky referred specifically to what he saw as “a clear pattern of spontaneously noncapitalist behaviour in the new forms of social interaction that new technologies enable. Activists do not usually pay attention to apparently ‘non-political’ behaviour. I think we have a lot to learn from that.” Joan Subirats’ memories from the seminar, influenced particularly by movements around housing becoming strong in many parts of Spain, focused on a broader potential. He observed that: “the emergence of new tensions that could favour new waves of mobilisation, taking advantage of the ‘resilience’ that exists in different ‘nodes’ of the network; tensions in circumstances of daily life that call into question the foundations of the system, for example, the movement for decent, worthy housing in Spain and France”. Angel Calle sensed potential in the way that “in addition to organising protests, social movements build up autonomous spaces for organising daily social life with alternative values – through social centres, community organisations and co-operative, social economic initiatives.”

Most people pointed to potential sources of transformatory action against the background of an assessment, which Franco Berardi (“Bifo”) characterised as “the end of cycle of the movement started in 1999”. It has been a successful experience because it destroyed the consensus on neo-liberal ideology. According to Bifo, though, it has also been a “failure because it has been unable to act effectively in the field of production of value. Hundred thousands people were marching every Saturday afternoon and protesting against exploitation and war, but on Monday morning the demonstrators were back in their places of work, unable to transfer the political strength of the demos from the sphere of social production. This has created a strange situation: a strong movement has been unable to fulfil any of its goals… The beginning of the infinite war has changed the scenario so deeply”, Bifo concludes, “that since February 15th 2003 the movement has lost its strength and its hope”.

Most people highlighted, as we did in our introduction, sources of resistances and alternatives still flowing over a rocky terrain and often beneath the ground – movimenti carsici, as the Italians describe the process, using the metaphor of rivers in the mountains that disappear for long stretches, only to reappear somewhere else.

Bifo’s understanding, however, led him in the opposite direction. While he starts from a recognition that “the unpredictable is the most important force”, he believes that the present state of social relationships does not offer any grounded source of hope. He developed the arguments he put in the seminar (see Challenges section) about the destruction of autonomy, the life blood of the imagination to argue that, “the effects of hyper capitalism are irreversible at the level of the environment, at the level of military proliferation, at the level of the social disaggregation of labour, and – most discouragingly – at the level of the human mind”. He stays very much on the alert, though, waiting for the unpredictable to emerge.

Others pointed to the dispersal of sources of hope and resistance, and the search in different ways for new forms of connection. Ines Pereira from Lisbon, a young activist in the fair trade and free software movements and a member of the radical left party, Bloco Esquerda, stressed the importance of developing more effective tools for coordination and networking among different groups and organisations at a global level, avoiding vertical approaches. She also argued that consensus and horizontality should be rethought because they aren’t always suitable for big groups: “It’s necessary”, she says, “to make use of central nodes, without falling into verticality”.

Adamovsky stresses the importance of connecting presently disconnected levels of ‘radicalism’. One of his unanswered questions was how to connect the spontaneously ‘radical’ behaviour of people building autonomous spaces and having non-capitalistic relationships, in p2p exchanges or through the Wikipedia for example, with the “activists” and social movements. Connections between social movements and parts of the trade union movement were discussed in depth in Manchester. What can be learnt from large networks like “Our World is Not For Sale” and the Hemispheric Social Alliance? Or from smaller networks like local alliances against privatisation in the UK or local chambers of labour in Italy, where trade unions and social movements appear to have created something more than the sum of their parts?

Jamie King, drawing on informatic metaphors, wanted to explore how the many nodes of the Internet have become an inter-network, and how this might relate to “binding” and interaction within and between political formations. Mayo Fuster’s stress on the importance of systematising social movement knowledge points to a tool for connection that provides a shared memory, a source of continuity and cumulative experience. This makes possible a significant flexibility in organisational form while also offering a fundamental tool of connection and a source of common language. The question of a new language of politics is a recurring theme. Berlinguer, reinforcing a challenge of Curcic’s (see Challenges) raised the unanswered question of how to find a language to articulate the unfolding new politics beyond the traditional political culture reflected in mass media representations.

Another type of question concerning communication and connections arose when contrasts were made between the impact of dissent in different social spheres. Bifo contrasted the strength on the streets in the early days of the war on Iraq with the weakness of resistance in the daily reproduction of capitalism. Others pointed to the gap between the strength of cultural dissent, and the weakness of dissent and alternatives within political institutions. Several unanswered questions had to do with how to relate to political institutions. How to build on the transformative processes that people observe in daily life? How to achieve sustained challenges to “hard power”, the enduring institutions of capitalist political and economic power?

Both Adamovsky and Pereira raised this issue. Adamovsky observed that one of the biggest dilemmas that movements now face is that not to participate in electoral politics leaves state power to the right (with catastrophic consequences), while participation usually ends up subverting the very principles of the movements (with catastrophic consequences). How do we move beyond this lose-lose situation? Pereira commented that parties, institutions and movements tend to be considered separate entities with their own models, languages, supporters and spheres of action. But, she asked, is this really effective? Parties and institutions need to change, to learn from the tools and ways of organising common among social movements. On the other hand, she noted, social movements should be more explicit and self-confident about their own role as political actors and interlocutors. This takes us from the sphere of transformative action in micropolitics – within social and cultural relations, the spheres where people have sufficient autonomy to daily create new social exchanges and connections – to the institutions, the level of hard power, the concentrated, embedded institutions of domination. Alex Foti is an elected councillor for the Green Party in Milan but at the same time his roots are in movements firmly independent of political institutions – most notably EuroMayday, a European wide organisation of precarious workers. So his views on parties are of interest: “The principles that have emerged after the end of the cold war are horizontality and self-organisation”. That means post- Leninism, and that’s clear. So even if we talk about parties, then it cannot be about Leninist parties. In addition, there is the emergence of an ecological consciousness – which is a rejection of the industrialist left – and the way the many of the new movements keep faith with the struggles for social equality and global solidarity of the sixties and the seventies which are still very much alive especially in Latin America.

Throughout the seminar, Berlinguer and others stressed a process of fragmentation and de-institutionalisation, both for good and for ill, changing rather than destroying “hard power”. For Hilary Wainwright, the thought that lingered was of “a more powerful sense of the force of de-institutionalisation and fragmentation than I had ever had before.

The micro-politics in the UK of struggling to defend from the latest wave of neo-liberalism public services or other still progressive institutions, sometimes makes me a little myopic, not fully comprehending the full force of the ocean and the speed at which it is sweeping traditional institutions – progressive and some reactionary too – away in its path”. What are the implications of this process for how the movements relate to the institutions? What are the implications for the strategies to achieve the independence of the movements from governement discussed by Alessandra Mecozzi from the Italian metalworkers’ union or Melissa Pomeroy active around participatory democracy in Brazil? (see Challenges) One of the central challenges of a new politics is the creation of new kinds of institutions, institutions that do not become ‘hard’. This was an underlying theme made explicit in the discussion of Linux. Is the idea of transformative institutions a contradiction in terms? What conclusions for future engagement with political institutions can be drawn from the German Greens’ experiment to refound their party on new institutional principles? To understand in depth the character of these would-be institutions, several people raised the “mother of all questions”: Why do we need institutions? For what purposes do we need institutions?

Joan Subirats opened up one direction for an answer in posing a question about property and “the commons”. He presented his lingering thought as an insight from the discussion of the Linux metaphor of “a collective construction without a master or leader but capable of gathering together people and entities in its daily and creative function”. In this context, he talked of the recovery of “communalism” from an understanding of property that is neither individual nor collective but “common” to all of us together and each of us alone. He asked whether it is possible, drawing from the tradition of “the commons” to configure institutional rules of property that manage to make access equal and free while doing it in such a way as to ensure the future sustainability of these principles?

It is clear, as the questions multiply, that our work has just begun. We should perhaps explain why we are reporting conversations and not conclusions. This pamphlet is unlike most reports in this sense. There are no bullet point conclusions, no measurable “outputs”. There is good reason for this, one that is intrinsic to our search. Like many activists and activist researchers we are in a moment of exploration and this pamphlet is simply “work in progress”. But we are also in a moment of urgency. As Lluc Peláez says, “If the social movements’ diagnosis of the world situation is correct, we have no time to lose. What must be the emergency strategy?” That’s a question for everyone. But effective strategies need regular moments and resources of collaborative reflective work. Surely that is the lesson of Frieder Otto Wolf’s analysis of the experience of the German Greens.

We hope this project, as well as providing such moments for us, will also contribute to a broader discussion in which others will participate. We intend to continue the discussion both on our collaborative website (www.networkedpolitics. info) and through occasional seminars. We are working on case studies on several aspects raised in these seminars: the insights of feminism for rethinking politics; the organisational principles and methods of the free software movement; the nature, possibilities and problems facing social movement trade unionism; global internet governance (in comparison with other institutional logics like the UN or WTO); the Hemispheric Social Alliance as a global network, and more. We hope you‘ll contact us, if only to keep the connections alive within the galaxy of interconnected activision – thinking and action – in which we are all engaged.