Networked Politics: principles and challenges
As a spur to honest reflection and to understand our various starting points, we asked participants in the Networked Politics process to share the two principles which they considered to be the most important as a guide to rethinking political organisation. Here are examples of what we came up with.
A radical ethics of equality
Ezequiel Adamovsky is a historian and activist from Buenos Aires. He has been involved in the neighbourhood assemblies that emerged there after the rebellion of 2001. His most recent book (in Spanish) is Anti-capitalism for beginners: the new generation of emancipatory movements (Buenos Aires 2003)
Transformative politics needs to be firmly anchored in ethics. We need to rethink our strategy, our structures of organisation, our goals… everything, in relation to a radical ethics of equality. This means an ethics of care for the other.
This is important because so much left politics has traditionally rejected the relevance of ethics. In the past, dominant traditions of left politics were more about organising and struggling for the sake of a Truth, than for the sake of myself and my equals. Left politics was – and still often is – more inclined to be faithful to an Idea (or to a programme or party) than to the people around us. (And here, I don’t mean The People, but the individuals around me, with whom I struggle and live).
This has not only produced unethical behaviour on the left, but it also makes listening to each other difficult. After all, if one has access to a political Truth, then there is no point in deliberating with my equals, nor in taking their viewpoints and necessities into account. And if someone argues something that seems not to be in tune with my political Truth, then that person needs to be taken out of my way. For obvious reasons, this faithfulness to ideas and not to other people creates serious problems when it comes to co-operation for shared political goals. That is why I think that a radical ethics of equality, an ethics of co-operation between equals, should be the basis of any desirable new transformative politics.
Understanding the heart of capitalist production
Brian Holmes is a writer with a background in art, writing on aesthetic forms of dissent, critique, revolt and alternatives in public spaces – gestures which, while taking place in physical space, would be impossible without the Internet. He has been involved in and written about numerous activities and demonstrations against corporate globalisation, ranging from the June 18, 1999 “Carnival against Capital” in London’s financial district, to No-border campaigns and Euromayday demonstrations in Europe, by way of smaller, more experimental interventions (see many texts on www.u-tangente.org).
The left has been very weak about understanding the heart of the capitalist production process. What’s involved are not only technological inventions, but also techniques for forming the loyalty and perseverance of individuals. By ignoring the complexity of the processes, we underestimate the kinds of strategies and tactics necessary for effective revolt. It’s important to look beyond what is immediately visible. For example, there are great challenges to intellectual property at the level of music, but if you look at what engineers are creating in terms of industrial patents on potentially useful things like medicines, agricultural technologies, communications devices and so forth, there is very little challenge to the intellectual property there.
If we try to understand what shapes the ways people are motivated, we see the creation of secret codes of value, connected to complex instrumental languages that are giving form to society, constructing cities, modes of transportation and communication, forms of interaction and interrelation. An example at a micro-scale is the way biometric identity cards of various kinds are being implemented and keyed to extensive, searchable databases like the Schengen one in Europe, or the way data is collected on individuals and sold to corporations to create so-called ‘geodemographic’ information systems for targeted advertising and merchandising. An example at a grand scale are the corridor-planning operations for integrated highways, power grids and communications networks, which you see being built according to the Puebla-Panama plan in North America, the European TRACEA project extending out toward Central Asia, or the so-called ‘Golden Quadrilateral’ highway project in India. These projects not only directly affect our daily lives, but they also mobilise tremendous amounts of creative intelligence, even though the results are in some ways sad and depressing for almost everyone.
People are strongly caught up not only in what they are doing to rise on the wage scale, but also to rise in the eyes of their peers professionally. Moreover their ideas of the world are deeply conditioned by the received ideas of the media. These are not all stupid ideas but they are received ideas: people have neither created them or arrived at them for themselves and only rarely do they question their origins. If the left cannot describe what is happening here, then we are out of the loop. We are reduced to creating a kind of self-referential myth about ourselves which in the end will cause the disappearance of the left, because the force of capitalist instrumentality is too strong to ignore. This can be seen as the pattern of professional motivation which allows each of the branches of techno-science to develop now at really fast rates. We saw it with the Internet, with the surveillance technologies, with the gene-splicing technologies, and I am afraid that the next frontier are cognitive technologies integrating psychological research to powerful new forms of manipulation of consciousness, for instance via the creation of veritable programmed environments, which you already encounter in places like airports. These developments, and their uselessness or harmful effects, have to be described unflinchingly, I think.
Having understood these processes more profoundly, we must then formalise the expression of all that, make it appear for what we are convinced it is, namely a waste of time and resources in so many cases, an almost insane kind of economic growth in which the broad, educated middle classes of the planet participate on the micro-scale of our own lives and professions. I think we should formalise that better, write about it, create images of what is going on, try to make sure that the complexity of the processes is expressed in such a way so that you see the realities. There is nothing to be gained by simplifying things in order to preserve illusions. The reality of the CCCB in Barcelona, where the Networked Politics seminar was held, is also really important, the fact that we are always operating in these partially alienated situations has to be honestly expressed. A sophisticated and capable political effort has to provide people with some kind of compass, a strong set of ethics that will help them deal with inevitable situations of alienation. Otherwise, what sets in is denial and the creation of fantasy lands of purity that ignore the real struggles.
But the key thing that also has to be expressed are the kinds of fulfilment people get from these radical projects, because we must also be attractive, we must offer a better and richer life – though not, of course, on the same basis as the capitalist professional system. This is the idea of social networking: you must network around something, and ultimately you must network around pleasure, self-expression, sociability and idealism too. So the fulfilment that people have in social movements and alternative politics needs to be expressed more, but expressed not just as individual achievement – that’s how capitalism encourages people to focus on themselves narcissistically – but as it fits into co-operative processes of transformation. All these things I’ve just mentioned are about expression because that is what I am mainly dealing with… but that is just one part of the larger picture.
Rebuild politics as a place for alternatives and common goods
Moema Miranda is an anthropologist and activist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is co-ordinator of IBASE (The Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses, www.ibase.org.br), and has been a member of the International Council of the World Social Forum since the first WSF in Porto Alegre. She is a former member and organiser of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT).
Rethinking politics involves rethinking culture and economics understood in the Aristotelian sense of oikos (household). How to take care of the common household? How to assure food, shelter, clothes, parties, art and music for everyone? How to create and to distribute wealth and goods without destroying the living conditions of the planet? But what is a “good life”? How much do we need or desire to live well? Who consumes? And what is the cost to others?
If capitalism has been victorious in the shaping the global order, then neo-liberalism has tried to complete and seal the process by undermining the legitimacy of politics and effectively disqualifying serious debate of alternative directions for society. In Brazil, this is leading to what is called the “insignificance of politics”. One aspect of this is the now familiar process of the growing power of vast corporations and international organisations controlled from the US and Europe, which are making the rules of the global economy and undermining the sovereignty of nation states. The second side of it has been the submission of the old left – perhaps because their idea of socialism was so wedded to the nation state – to the notion of capitalism’s inevitability. As a result, we have witnessed the sad pursuit by our parties and leaders to some of the worst practices of the right, as if there was truth in the old cliché “if you can’t beat them, join them”. The worst scenario now is that we bow to the apparently self-evident fact that we live in a world shaped by forces that cannot be understood or controlled by the population. A world that is simultaneously magic and disenchanted. The only way we can rebuild politics and trust in the possibility of alternatives is to develop proposals which have a meaning for our daily lives, that create hope and that extend confidence in the force of common action.
Facing up to the pervasiveness of fear
We face an almost paralysing obstacle in achieving this aim: the constant feeling of fear. Faced with the apparent inevitability of an economic order that creates systemic and growing inequality, that is locked into the logic of war, that produces wealth constantly at the cost of the destruction of the planet, fear becomes a natural response: fear of crime, of the neighbour, of the immigrant, of the competition for my job, of war and instability. Fear of loneliness, of grow old and losing the pension. We have to make combating fear a central part of our new thinking about politics.
Fear is one of the most anti-revolutionary feelings that I know. It produces passivity and fatalism and makes the absurd and the grotesque acceptable. The only active way of fighting fear is by the radical reaffirmation of hope – and not only by the creation of new sources of security. But let’s not talk about hope as a messianic feeling. It is not the hope that depends on waiting; it is the hope that comes from being engaged in something new; the hope based on our capacity to move in new directions, to break with the existing order, to projects new possibilities… for a better life for all.
The omnipresence of the capacity to transform
Hilary Wainwright, based in Manchester, is co-editor of Red Pepper magazine (www.redpepper.org.uk) and research director for the New Politics programme of the Transnational Institute (www.tni.org) in Amsterdam. She has been a writer on rethinking political organisation for longer than she cares to remember!
A guiding principle to our new forms of organisation should be a recognition of the omnipresence of the power and capacity to transform. The existing social order depends on the actions of people reproducing and sustaining that order on a daily basis, as workers, consumers, voters, as creative people. But this also contains the possibility of intentional actions of refusal, in order to set off a dynamic of transformation. A transformative way of organising must therefore be continually open and responsive to initiatives from new constituencies, and the discovery of new spheres and possibilities of change.
A related principle is to organise in a way that gives full expression to the capacities and knowledge of all those sharing common desires and values for change. This requires inventing means of sharing and interconnecting this knowledge and skill (as in the first principle), and also a commitment to support its development. It also implies that priority will be given to reaching out to people who share transformative values but do not express them through the existing platforms of the left. This principle stems from a recognition of the varied sources of knowledge, valuing experiential and tacit knowledge as well as scientific and historical knowledge.
Starting from oneself … but not ending there
Frieder Otto Wolf (www.friederottowolf.de), based in Berlin, was a founder member of the German Greens and is a former member of the European parliament. Currently coordinater of the European Network `Sustainability Strategy’ and professor of philosophy at the Free University, Berlin.
My first principle is politics in the first person. By this I mean starting from oneself but then reaching out to the far recesses of the global processes of domination in order radically to subvert each and every one of them. This means starting from our own complicity in these structures and relationships and developing with others strategies of refusal and alternatives at every level. It means developing our politics as a process of enlarging our common self-determination.
This principle also implies a further principle of comprehensive personal responsibility – that is, trying to understand the ways in which one’s own practices and potential areas of work and action may be transformed from being a means of support (even though unintended) for the established structures of domination into a source of support and solidarity with other struggles against injustice and domination.
Marco Berlinguer is co-ordinator of Transform! Italia (www.transform.it) in Rome, which is part of a wider international network Transform! Europe. He is currently working on links between trade unions and social movements. He is editor of a geographical map of social conflicts in Rome, and various other books and pamphlets of relevance to the new movements in Italy and internationally.
The principle of “de-institutionalisation” has several dimensions: first, it describes reality. In all dimensions of life – not only the dynamics of the movements – we observe an increasing reduction of the role of institutions in structuring, mediating, or representing the social relations of which we are part. This trend has many negative sides: the power exercised by non-democratic and informal economic and political powers on a global scale, the growth of the precarious economy, criminal activities and networks, the abandonment of entire territories marginal to the priorities of the market and the destruction of social regulation and protection.
On the positive side, this principle recognises the degeneration of the traditional political institutions. It also points to the potential of, and capacity for, self-organisation. It suggests a challenge to re-think the shape, the role and even the very concept of political institutions, in the light of more advanced conceptions of democracy.
In the most recent cycle of movements we have seen a structural conflict between different logics of organisation. In simplistic terms there is, on the one hand, the traditional organisational logic based on vertical structures, closed identities and boundaries; on the other hand, there is the logic based on open, horizontal, networked forms of organisation. In this conflict, we can see that a new logic of organisation is emerging in which the idea of going beyond any previous institutional space or form has been central. For example, in the WSF process there has been a progressive abandonment of the pretension of organising this political space in a centralised way, through a core group of organisations and individuals. A result of this constant conflict is that all the space in the WSF is – at least formally – organised through a self-organisational logic with networking aims.
The concept of de-institutionalisation also reflects thinking about social transformation based more on autonomous, diffused, decentralised and direct forms of action and less on institutional constraints, and forms of delegation and representation characteristic of traditional mass organisations. In this sense, the concept also emphasises the role of cultural and ethical transformation. If we use the principle of de-institutionalisation to gain a self-understanding of present-day social and political movements, it can help us enlarge the concept of politics and of social movements beyond the constituency of explicitly political activists – including, for example, intrinsically but nevertheless political movements like those around free and open source software or file-sharing and open editing.
Finally, I think it is important to recover the memory of the roots of this principle (with all its contradictions) in the movements of the 1960s and 70s, and their claim for an enlarged concept of autonomy. The feminist movement is particularly significant in this respect. Such a recovery would enable us to explore in more depth the ambivalences and unresolved contradictions of capitalism as it is today, the product of several decades of radical restructuring using a distorted and alienated version of such concepts of autonomy.
I have a further principle: of complexity. Consider the WSF with its different organisational scales, structures, cultures and logics. All this variety lives in the same space and interacts in complex (conflictive and co-operative) ways, influencing and transforming each other and their shared environment. Converging around an event and a process they recognise that, in some way, they are part of a common world, though they cannot be unified as, or reduced to a single subject. It is important to understand how such a space has been created and can work.
Complexity is first of all a principle of the reality we face. When we say that diversity is our strength, we show a capacity for re-formulating our cultural schemes and developing new ways of working on the basis of recognising it. The idea of complexity also implies a kind of ecological (or holistic?) approach to the multiple nature of the global movement, treating it as a world of worlds. The logic of complexity also helps us to understand the swarming processes typical of recent mobilisations. These mobilisations have been the result of decentralised and dispersed initiatives that have bypassed any organised structure or subject. There has been no topdown control or centralised command logic.
As a principle of reality, complexity also has a dark side. It reflects, for example, the loss of control by sovereign states and the world’s growing disorder. But to recognise and manage this complexity means to abandon any pretension of reducing things to one shape, one style, one single solution. It points to the necessity of learning how to live and work together without destroying our differences. It means resisting a global politics that tries to be homogeneous. It is a feature of the historical phase we are engaged in where a radical transformation and the new overlaps with the old.
A plurality of actors
Alessandra Mecozzi is International Secretary of FIOM, the Italian metalworkers’ union. She is active in many social movements in Italy, especially the peace movement and the movement of solidarity with Palestine, and is also involved in the ESF and WSF. She writes extensively on these issues.
Transformation cannot be made by one actor. We need a plurality of actors with the ability to converge on common issues and at the same time to be rooted in their own social ground. To be transformative it is necessary be open to others; to be rooted but without a closed identity. Secondly, the supra-national character of politics must be recognised, as well as the importance of linking the global and the local. Workers in a factory struggle against precarity, a community reacts against the privatisation of water, the population of a city refuses a military base in its territory - these local struggles are necessary in order to improve the conditions of life and implement fundamental rights. But their effectiveness and strength depends on a global struggle for fundamental rights at work, against the power of multinational companies and against militarism and war.
A new horizontality
Ángel Calle from Madrid, Spain is a researcher on the DEMOS Project (“Democracy in Society and the Mobilisation of Society”, www.demos.iue.it), working on the ideas of democracy in the recent alter- global social movements. He teaches at the University of Madrid.
Ángel Calle from Madrid, Spain is a researcher on the DEMOS Project (“Democracy in Society and the Mobilisation of Society”, www.demos.iue.it), working on the ideas of democracy in the recent alter- global social movements. He teaches at the University of Madrid.
In looking for the principles of a new subjectivity we should take into account the crisis that we are living through, which is two-fold. On the one hand, most people feel that daily life is troublesome, fraught with insecurity and precarity, full of sources of anxiety; on the other hand, they don’t look to traditional institutions for help – the state, political parties, and trade unions. Few people rely on these institutions or expect them to express or understand the conflicts that this crisis produces.
People feel they don’t have control over the circumstances of their lives. How do we organise in a way which enables people to regain control? We need to break from a “vertical” approach to organisation – that is, an approach based on delegation and on domination. We need more horizontality in how we organise. This new horizontality must be a foundation stone of rethinking political organisation. This implies new common goods, and open access to material and basic information at every level, from local to global. We need ways of organising in which people not only participate but also define the rules of the space in which we are interacting. This requires creating autonomous spaces in which people have real power.
You have to feel this horizontality and build it into everyday life, so that it starts from the local but builds up to the global. It does not only refer to our material needs but also to our emotional needs, our psychological situation, our language. Effectively then, we are talking about not just protest but the experience of new ways of living. At the same time as we are working towards a future project, we are experimenting with changes that bring new benefits in the present. To achieve this real involvement, it is important to engage emotionally, to build cultures based on real networks. The networking cannot therefore be done only by the internet; if the networks are to be a way of developing a new politics they need to be grounded in emotional connections.
Principles making horizontality possible
Dominque Cardon is a Paris-based sociologist working in the France Télécom Research and Development Department and Usage Laboratory. His research focuses on relations between the use of new technologies and cultural and media activities.
I also draw upon the experience of the WSF and the organisational principles enshrined in its Charter of Principles, drawn up in Porto Alegre, Brazil in April 2001. The three principles of horizontality contained in the Charter have become the basic principles of the new network structure of co-ordination and the basis of many recent mobilisations and actions, for example those against the CPE [a controversial youth labour law] in France last spring. It is useful to lay them out. The first is respect for the principle of diversity. This implies an open forum in which everyone can participate and can value and celebrate their diversity. It also implies a consciousness of the need constantly to extend the networks to new actors.
The second principle of horizontality is that there is no centre. No one individual or organisation can speak in the name of the whole network or space. Like most network structures, WSFs do not have a decision-making centre; they do not have a spokesperson, and do not sign any text or declaration. This clause of self-limitation is one of the essential features of network organisation. There is no centre to struggle for. Actors can only speak in their own name or in the name of their organisation. Actors can only express their ideological and strategic diversity. This generates many tensions in the movement – as well as causing frustration amongst journalists and other political actors who would like to be able to identify a single anti-globalisation agenda, with a single voice.
The third principle of horizontality is that the only decisionmaking process that is consistent with the openness and diversity of the movement is one based on consensus. It is the only decision-making procedure that can co-ordinate organisations with a variety of sizes, functions, internal structures, social and geographical origins. It is impossible to define criteria or create a basis for the representation of participants, or to allocate to them differential decisionmaking power. Each organisation, whatever its structure, past, size, social object or political position, has potentially the same weight in the decision-process of the WSF. Consensus does not mean unanimity, however. It identifies disagreement rather than support. The participants must continue the discussion until they agree on one compromise and satisfy or neutralise opposition to it. In this process, consensus building appears as a very distinctive political process in which the use of time, bargaining and negotiation are central features. At its best, it produces a special culture of discussion which is less oppositional and more developed than the traditional majoritarian procedure.
Connecting collective and individual transformation; political and economic transformation
Joan Subirats is Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Director of IGOP (Institute of Government and Public Policies, http://igop.uab.es), also in Barcelona.
My first principle is based on the renewed exigency of the message of equality that has historically characterised the left. This was, and still is, the driving force of demands for social transformation. But it is true that this principle should today be complemented with other aspects that have not always been sufficiently present in the left wing tradition: individual autonomy, and the recognition of diversity in its broadest sense (cultural, ethnic, religious, life choices, etc.). From this triangle of values, a vision of a new citizenship worth fighting for can be projected on a global scale. I don’t think that this aspiration can be found in any particular political actor but, rather, that it should flow from a plural and heterogeneous complex of groups, collectives, institutions and persons.
This brings me to my second principle: the conviction that no durable social change or transformation is possible if it is not simultaneously based on personal change and transformation. This represents a notable correction to the traditions of the organised left that were essentially based on the possibility of ending oppression and inequality through the conquest and exercise of power by a conscious and organised vanguard. There will be no political change without economic change but neither will there be social change without personal change.
The challenge lies in how to advance in the achievement of these principles in a tenacious and efficient manner, without betraying the starting principles. This brings us to the ways of doing politics and what we understand by politics. The institutionalisation of the left has led to a radical impoverishment of what politics is. Politics tends to be confused with parties and institutions, and this separates many people from politics. It also separates many people and collectives that are really doing politics (since they work to transform people and communities) from politics. They feel that what they do has nothing to do with what they are told politics is. We should therefore attempt to salvage and widen the social meaning of politics by “politicising” daily life, social relations and the forms of work and co-existence. In this sense, it is very important to change the concept of political action by linking it to certain formats or rites. Everyone participates in politics and does politics depending on their conditions, realities, knowledge and previous experiences. We should therefore imagine forms of direct participation and leadership that empower people. We should also allow collective learning of these same practices through the deliberation and contrasting of opinions and proposals.
The other challenge is how to transform the institutions without being swallowed up by them. How to maintain their transformative capacity by building alternatives (dissidence), directly opposing new authoritarian tendencies (resistance), and appreciating the influential capacity that exists within the institutions (incidence). It probably isn’t necessary for one person, organisation, or collective to try to do all three things simultaneously. The inherent conflict in the three dimensions is not negative either, but the challenge is to make them possible and sustainable without losing connections and mixed potentials.
Participatory democracy: beyond the label
Melissa Pomeroy from Sao Paulo, Brazil, now lives in Barcelona where she works with the International Observatory of Participatory Democracy (OIPD, www.oipd.net). She was previously involved in the participatory budget of Martha Supplicy’s PT government in Sao Paulo.
Today, people’s access to public debate is more limited than it has been for some time. There are many reasons for this: globalisation; growing inequality; the speed of change and the depoliticisation of the economy, for example. Although the return of the “agora” is impossible, the failure and growing crisis of representative institutions makes it urgent for citizens to achieve greater direct participation in economic and political decisions. I want to emphasise decisions because mere debate and consultation is not enough for a new politics.
The label “participatory democracy” risks becoming meaningless. Exactly because of its great political potential, it has been used as a label for many different conceptions, sometimes to legitimise existing exhausted institutions without really changing them, sometimes to co-opt stong social forces. As Boaventura de Souza Santos argues, these perversions of the idea can happen through new forms of “clientelism”: bureaucratisation, party instrumentalisation, or through silence and the manipulation of participatory spaces and institutions.
We need to promote a strong conception of participatory democracy that is able to open public spaces, to strengthen voices and visions so far excluded (or in the process of being excluded), and to widen the possibilities for political struggle, developing what Hilary Wainwright calls “counter power” in her book Reclaim the State. In other words, the spaces and institutions of participatory democracy should be such as to have an educative and mobilising capacity. They should be based on a concept of positive citizenship (against the negative and passive kind assumed by our present political institutions). Active citizenship has duties, rights and, especially, a creative aspect by which it is capable of generating new spaces, new institutions and new rules. Francisco de Oliveira describes active citizenship as involving a “full autonomy – to know how to decide, to be able to decide and to be able to make decisions be complied to”.
A good test of genuinely participatory processes is whether or not participants experience a learning process, through which they develop as an individual in their social and community context, through discussion and reflection What are the conditions for this? This is difficult to talk about. Personally, I believe that the first condition takes place at the individual level. Although I may be labeled as individualistic, I can not imagine any real change without a whole change within ourselves. But this change can only happen as a result of very varied and intense interaction and collaboration. Secondly, I think that the principles of participatory democracy that I have mentioned cannot be restricted to the relationship between traditional institutions and citizens. They will only realise their full transformative potential if they are applied to every sphere of social life. I would prioritise the spheres of work and communication. Counter power and autonomy can only be supported through information, interaction and recognition, and the opinion moulded by the “neutral information” flows from today’s dominant media sources does not provide a basis for this.
Parties should be bombarded by movements
Luciana Castellina is “a survivor of the 20th century”, as she puts it – and of many historic political struggles within the Italian and more widely the European and international left. These include a 25 year experience as a parliamentarian. She is a founder of Il Manifesto and of at least one political party – after being expelled from the Italian Communist Party.
I would speak in defence of political parties, despite not belonging to or liking any existing political parties. Good movements became parties and good parties were born out of movements. Mao Tse-Tung said that parties should be bombarded by movements. Much of what he said was catastrophic, but he had a good formula when said he said that we should ditch the old and regenerate every 10 years. It is unavoidable that when movements stabilise, they tend to acquire all the worst characteristics of the parties. I say “worst” because they can produce the worst forms of “leaderism” I have known, worse than that existing in political parties, where at least there are some rules to control the leadership.
The importance of parties arises precisely because of the complexity, diversity and multiplicity that others have remarked upon. The people are not homogenous: it is therefore not enough just to speak about ‘participation’ without debating the kind of structures that will take account of all the differences of interest and culture. Without such structures you will simply have the lowest common denominator of combining different interests. In order, by contrast, to develop a form of mediation which brings everyone forward, there needs to be a way of developing a long-term strategy. Historically, this is where political parties came in. Movements were seen as being concerned with specific issues, whereas parties were seen as capable of developing a vision of the world, an interpretation of history and a long-term strategy.
Political parties have lost relevance because politics has lost ground. We talk a lot about the privatisation of public services, but what was really privatised is political decision-making. The power lies now in commercial agreements, not political institutions. What is democracy now, as a result of this process?
Go beyond the “we” of social movement activision
Mayo Fuster Morell is co-founder and co-ordinator of the Glocal Research Centre -Infoespai (www.infoespai.org) in Barcelona. She is involved in developing Euromovements (www.euromovements.info) – a multi-faceted guide to social transformation in Europe, and is working on a PhD on knowledge and social movements at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
We need to rethink politics in a way that ensures that the “we” of social movements goes beyond activism and the organisational forms which are now seen as political. Aren’t file sharing, open-editing (as in wikipedia), or squatting by nonsquatters part of a wave of new politics? The participants are not generally part of political networks, but they share some principles with those of us searching for a new politics. We must create a form of politics which includes them.
Don’t take gender equality for granted
We must not assume that gender equality is something already won. In anti-global organisations (for example, in my experience, the Moviments de Resistencia Global of Catalunya; campaigns against the World Bank; etc), gender equality was taken for granted and this was a great error. Instead, we need to behave and organise in ways that prefigure the gender equality that we want to see in a future society. We must especially develop a deeper awareness of the consequences of gender inequality on men and homosexuals.
Gender inequality is about everything
Carolyn Leckie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Socialist Party (www.scottishsocialistparty.info).
We have learnt that it is important to apply feminist analysis and consciousness-raising to the dynamic of your own organisation as well as society at large. Gender inequality is not just about economic inferiority and institutional inequality; it is about everything. Sexism and misogyny can exist in organisations whose members unanimously support formal equality. But is it a priority for today or tomorrow? In a radical organisation, failing to give it a priority may just be a symptom of underlying sexism, but faced with a challenge or a crisis it can come to the surface and be a fundamental source of weakness. Don’t be complacent.
In particular, avoid mirroring the patriarchal structures of society in your organisation. “Leaders” tend to be men. More democratic, collective decision-making by flatter, grassroots structures and a zero tolerance approach to chest beating, dogmatic, long winded self styled “experts” (generally men) might help give women the time to think and contribute more than they often do at present. Such a supporting environment will contribute towards the creativity and effectiveness of the organisation more generally. I sincerely believe that if the left doesn’t constantly strive to achieve this then, wherever they succeed in gaining power, they will inevitably replicate unequal, undemocratic unequal power systems. You can’t wait for the revolution to change attitudes. It is a process that needs to be constant if a new democracy is to have the best chance.
In the SSP, we have a policy of a worker’s wage for parliamentarians – a wage based on the average wage. But it has not proved sufficient as a way of keeping parliamentarians accountable. Certain personalities (most likely male) are not checked by fiscal accountability on its own. Time limits for elected representatives, subservience of a parliamentary group to a thriving grassroots party, open transparent decision-making by an empowered membership: all of these are ideals. But this list is not exhaustive, and it does not deal with all of the contradictions of our situation.
The participants in the Networked Politics process were each asked to indicate two challenges that they hoped our collective efforts to rethink political organisation would address. These were used to stake out the terrain that the debates in our Barcelona seminar, in particular, would need to cover. It quickly became clear that several themes and questions recurred and overlapped in a striking way.
First, there was a shared sense of urgency. In some cases this came from a generalised sense of foreboding - especially regarding the US and its junior partners in Europe. Brian Holmes, just back from the US, concluded that “the strongest challenge right now is how to communicate a sense of urgency, a sense of pending dystopia to people whose basic narcissism and basic vital energy seems to be completely caught up in their professional activity”. Frieder Otto Wolf presented the most difficult challenge as “how to re-anchor the daunting issues of the global crisis to our own practices, identifying our own kinds of complicity and from this inventing effective ways of resisting and taking alternative initiatives”.
In many cases, the sense of urgency concerns a situation where left parties are in government. Several partcipants in the Networked Politics process are active in Brazil, where the second round of the presidential elections was taking place as we gathered in Barcelona, and where the left and social movements have been engaged in heated debates over how to rebuild themselves in the context of Lula’s second term. Moema Miranda from Rio de Janeiro, a leading activist in the development of the World Social Forum, stresses the importance of working with poor people: “the definition is hard – the excluded, the voiceless – but the point is clear: the left, certainly in Brazil, has lost many of its linkages with the daily life, sorrows, concerns and desires of the largest part of the population, the millions that live near the poverty line (not to mention those below it). Over the past decade or so, we have lost a wonderful tradition of political activity rooted in these experiences. It was built here through the popular education movement, liberation theology groups and the base of the PT (Brazilian Workers’ Party). Today, to take the WSF as an example, 80 per cent of participants have university degrees. We must learn from movements like the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) and indigenous initiatives in many parts of Latin America, and not just talk about but work with the poor.”
Movement independence from governments and markets
In Italy too, social movement activists are facing the sweet and sour – and getting increasingly sour – experience of a left party being part of the government, with Rifondazione Comunista being part of Prodi’s Unione coalition. Alessandra Mecozzi of the Italian Metal Workers Union, and a leading activist in the Italian peace movement, spoke at the Manchester workshop at the time that Italian troops were going to Lebanon about the pressing challenge of “how to maintain the identity of the movement: in particular, how to develop the capacity to follow an independent strategy and develop its own perspectives. This is an urgent issue now in relation to questions of peace and war”. She described the problem as “how to strengthen our critical analysis of the drive towards a militarisation of government politics. This would also make our action more strategic. In this way we would support the more radical forces inside the Government, which are currently in a weak position. For example, sending a force to Lebanon was necessary to stop the massacre of civilians – and was therefore a quite different mission from Iraq or Afghanistan – but at the same time, it is exposed to the risk of becoming another part of the global “war on terror”. The challenge for the peace movement is whether and how it is possible to prevent conflicts and to demilitarise the politics. The peace movement should function as an independent actor, defining its position in relation to the groups, workplaces and citizens, who are their “constituency”, rather than in relation simply to whether it supports or opposes the Governement. The need for independence – a condition for the survival of movements - is vital in the field of peace and war, and in spheres of social policy”.
Melissa Pomeroy, who has been involved in several of the experiments in participatory budgeting initiated by the Brazilian Workers Party, also addressed the question of what strategy movements should adopt when a party that came from the left is in government - in the case of the PT, actually leading the government. Like Alessandra, she stressed “the importance, and difficulties, of the movements constructing and confidently promoting an independent and self-confident agenda and time table of their own”.
Independence was also an important issue for Branka Curcic, an editor with the New Media Centre in Novi Sad, Serbia. She described the situation after the closed experience of state socialism and the illusion of self-management. “What is this autonomy?” we asked each other, “when do we live freely and autonomously?” Autonomy from the rampant market and global capitalism became increasingly important but also illusive. “After the experience of self-management and people’s uncritical attitude towards the conditions of their work, we believe we must be very careful about how we create our own autonomous spaces for action”. For her, a key challenge concerns “how to avoid the dangers of making ourselves precarious, and of our innovations and practice being absorbed by neo-liberalism?” In her view, addressing this should involve “extracting the positive aspects of the period of self-management in the former Yugoslavia, and escaping the usual conformist position that revolutionary transformation is daydreaming”.
Franco Berardi (Bifo) from Bologna, who has been involved in numerous projects on the theory and practice of communication ranging from Radio Alice, the first free radio station in Italy, to Telestreet, a network of over 150 pirate TV stations across Italy, made a more general point about the importance of autonomy: “the main factor of change has always been the autonomy or irreducibility of daily life (desire, imagination, expectations) to the capitalist organisation of labour. This autonomy has always been the source of rebellion, solidarity and political rebellion”. He argued that today, the capitalist fabrication of desire, imagination and expectations, and the constrained and imposed process whereby people build their identities, is drying the very autonomy of daily life, and paralysing the ability of self-creation.
The sense of urgency infusing our explorations illustrated the usefulness of making similar opportunities for reflection – and the tools to facilitate it – a consistent part of the life of any would-be transformative organisation. Many people made this point, regarding it as a necessary condition for rethinking political organisation. “How do we organise in a way which acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about the consequences of our action and, therefore, the fact that we are always working with uncertainty?” asked Hilary Wainwright. “How do we build self-reflection and experimentation into our methods, at the same time as taking the decisive and concerted action that is often necessary?”
Enlarging our self-understanding
Another common theme was the need to reach out at the same as experimenting and regenerating – indeed, to make “breaking out of restricted and self-referential mentalities (with their related pretension of control)”, as Marco Berlinguer put it, an integral part of our rethinking. Echoing and expanding on the challenge from Moema Miranda, he continued: “This means enlarging the self-understanding of our movements, rooting their formation and growth in the tensions, conflicts, choices and alternatives of daily life, rather than reducing our sense of ourselves only to circuits, culture and organisations of political militancy”.
Bifo followed Marco’s challenge with a more specific one of his own: “how do we find a language to communicate with the first generation of humans who have learned more words from the machine than from the mother? This affects the relationship between language and emotion; it is also affecting the imagination, depriving it of autonomy and creativity. What are the problems of translation, of emotion, of finding ways of talking to what maybe we should call ‘the post-human humans’?” Mayo Fuster came at the enlargement of our nets from another angle. Her challenge was to develop a “curiosity – always a work in progress – about the key principles and logics for a new politics which will go beyond the boundaries of traditional politics”.
Christophe Aguiton, a French-based trade union and political organiser and activist, whose research focuses on information and communications technology issues and social movement organisation, reinforced the idea of an open, investigative dimension to rethinking political organisation. He insisted that something new is being invented in today’s struggles that we do not yet understand, yet which could be of huge importance. “I come from a country with a strong tradition of direct democracy. We have had general strikes and huge social movements in which people organised themselves in large assemblies and elected delegates, and many different committees to lead the movement. 1968 was a classic example”. But the movements that we see today appear to be organised on quite different principles, he argued, giving the example of the successful spring 2006 mobilisation against the First Employment Contract (CPE), an oppressive youth employment law. He explains: “In the past, the movements organised in a direct way and really involved people, but they organised through a sort of pyramid of elected officers. Now the movements organise on a horizontal basis, without a pyramid, without the classic delegation, through methods of co-ordination of autonomous initiatives. We are seeing the emergence of huge networks of very heterogeneous bodies.” We have to understand the novelty and distinctiveness of what is going on, Christophe concluded.
New methods, new tensions
These new ways of organising bring with them various tensions that need to be addressed. For Dominique Cardon, who is researching both the use of new technology and also social movements in France, the question of individualism poses an important challenge: “We talk about networks, but we should refer to the individualisation of involvement. We hold back from saying this because we know that individualism is linked to the sphere of consumption. But the fact is that political involvement is more and more individualistic. It’s a challenge to reflect on why people are not engaged in parties but associate as consumers. We can see them as militantly peer-to-peer or something like that”.
Christophe Aguiton wanted to explore “how consensusmaking in networking is really working; how relations of power are at work. These consensus methods are very efficient sometimes, e.g. in organising the huge global anti-war demonstrations in 2003, but we need to look at how they worked”. Several people raised challenges that stem from the movement’s strength: its diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity. Alex Foti, based in Milan and, among many things, an organiser of the Euromayday (www.euromayday.org) network against precarity, described a frustrating side of this: “We’ve seen that multitudes online can reach decisions. But the consensus approach has prevented us from taking strategic decisions. In order to make sure heterogeneity is respected, that everyone agrees, we missed out a lot of opportunities. Indeed our biggest failure is that our objectives, in my case against precarisation, have retreated back to the national level. Our challenge is really to create major battles, with achievable and significant aims, at a European level. But how can this level of coherence be achieved while maintaining the multiplicity and diversity which has proved in itself, in some circumstances, to be a source of the movements’ efficacy – for example, in achieving uncprecedented levels and depths of mobilisation?”
The sense of being in the midst of an uncertain institutional transition was common to many people’s challenges. Marco Berlinguer suggested the principle of ‘de-institutionalisation’, and his challenged focused on the opposite side of this: “how do we conceive, develop, and affirm new kinds of institutions? If old institutions are dying, some kind of institution still remains a fundamental necessity in any community. The building of new institutions is one of the most difficult challenges that the movement is facing”. Ezequiel Adamovsky spelled this out further: “We have rightly rejected the parties and the other institutions of the traditional left; we know that elections and parliamentary politics can be a very limited and dangerous path; we know that social movements need to be at the forefront of political strategy; we know that diversity and multiplicity are values we want to protect against centralisation; we know we need to develop more horizontal and less hierarchical structures. But we still have no clue how to organise ourselves in a new, different way. We have all toyed with the metaphor of the network, and with the ideas of direct democracy, participatory politics, assemblies, autonomy, and so on, but we still haven’t come out with concrete tools to bring together the dispersed anti-capitalist struggles in an effective way”.
One particular theme of our inquiry surfaced on several occasions: the search for non-heirarchical and transparent forms of mediation. Many people presented their challenges, like Ezequiel, in terms of what the conditions and forms of a new kind of connectedness are. Branka posed such a challenge in terms of language:
“What would be the new language that could articulate (in a positive sense) those initiatives that are dispersed worldwide but based on shared principles of thoughtful involvement and dedication, complexity, essential discussion, participation and ethics? Without falling into the danger of uncritical convergence of disconnected initiatives, what kind of language can express and help realise a ‘shared horizon’ or common interest (if there is only one)?”
Mayo Fuster focused on a particularly growing communication challenge: “how do we develop a synthetic language of communication which can overcome the problem of excesses of information (visualisation techniques, for example)? This could help the processes of mediation that make possible wide participation”.
Several people, including Ricard Gomà from Barcelona and Gemma Galdon Clavell, also from Barcelona but now working with the New Politics programme of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, stressed the importance of public spaces as a resource for the development of new institutions. Ricard stressed the destruction of these spaces in recent years and the need for the left to reclaim them – something which will not be done by governments. Gemma stressed the challenge of making public spaces political spaces: “What are public spaces in political terms?” she asked.
One of the institutions addressed was leadership. Sometimes, reliance on an individual to symbolise a cause or a vision is an unintended substitute for developing transparent democratic institutions through which members have real power and the cultural self-confidence to use that power. Hilary posed the challenge of how to deal with the problem of leadership: “Allowing individuals to symbolise a cause has had many destructive consequences – think of Lula, Tony Blair or, now, Tommy Sheridan in Scotland. The symbol ends up devouring the organisation. Do we need individual leaders as distinct from transparent, democratically agreed rules through which many people take responsibility?”
How is our thinking – or lack of it – about new institutions influenced by our attitude and relationship to existing institutions? Here Joan Subirats posed a challenge: “I can see a danger in the fact that a lot of social movements see institutions as something very weird and separate from their life. They have decided that the institutions are not important to them. I try and explain my view with a triangle.
The three corners are: resistance, dissent but also influence. The triangle illustrates the tension between being against the dominating power and against the political institutions while at the same time being able to construct new alternatives; it concerns influencing and connecting with institutions in a conflictive way, including by being present in the life of the formal political institutions”.
Identity, culture, knowledge
Rethinking political organisation is not just a matter of communication, institutions and rules, it also involves questions of identity, argued Geraldo Campos. He learnt from an intense experience in Sao Paulo of participatory budgeting, which has led him to stress the importance of a tension between dynamics, as he puts it, of ‘belonging’ and ‘becoming’: “In an age of networks and fluid movements where flows are permanently crossing each other, more and more people are in contact, and communities are super-imposed on each other, the identity issue can be a problem. The challenge is to think of ways of addressing this that do not consolidate the fixed identities and stereotyping imposed by capitalism. We need to go beyond `identity politics’”. He drew on his experience of building participation amongst traditionally excluded groups – women, blacks, youth, indigenous people, homeless, disabled, elderly GLBT and children – to show the potential of mixing participatory mechanisms and the discussion of identities. The process of sharing a space whose rules they defined together showed them that, as well as their singularities, they shared something. “The result was a sense of opening of the identities we had before the experience”, reported Geraldo.
This state of open and fluid identities is potentially a source of strength and, therefore, one basis for an answer to the difficult challenge posed by Alex Foti: “when the anti-globalisation movement was born, it was cool to be multiidentity. But in a world with global war of Bush’s Christian right and Anglo-American Israeli Occidentalism versus fundamentalist Islam; a world where there are many strong identities, a strong Shia identity, a strong occidentalist identity, a strong Indian identity in Latin America, we are weak, we do not have a strong sense of identification”.
Moema Miranda also provides insights for an answer to Alex, as well as posing further challenges: “We cannot face the challenges of today if we reduce our understanding of anti-capitalist struggles and of politics to just the rationalistic dimensions of our movements. For example, here in Brazil, Liberation Theology and the Ecclesial Grassroots Communities were essential in the struggle against dictatorship and in creating the basis for the PT. Today, we can only oppose fundamentalism effectively if we engage with spiritualities and forms of art and liberation cultures, with their capacity to relate to the majority of our populations. These dimension of spirituality and of the arts were badly interpreted in the formulations of classical left. So there is a great challenge to open up the scope of who we talk to”.
She adds to this the connected challenge of overcoming Eurocentric ways of articulating concepts and values. As she puts it: “globalisation can hide differences between us. Differences may be the source of a rich diversity, but to realise this richness requires a renewed effort to establish an intense dialogue with the Other, the really diverse. Boaventura Dos Santos has been talking about the importance of ‘intercultural translation’ as a condition for this mutual understanding. Whatever we call it, this is a challenge for the dialogues of the innovative, radical left and for linking movements and alternatives across North and South.
Another challenge from Ezequiel Adamovsky reinforces this sense of the limits of the culture of the left: “We need to reinvent left culture. We are actually in the process of doing it, but there’s still a long way to go. By culture I mean values, language and structures of feeling, not just ideas. The culture of the traditional left tends to be very militaristic, a ‘macho’ culture; we need to reinvent our culture as one of openness, co-operation and creativity”.
This brings us to the question of how we understand knowledge, and the importance for rethinking political organisation of valuing the knowledge produced in the process of transformation and struggle. It might seem overly rationalistic to treat culture as a cue to a discussion of knowledge. But a challenge posed by several people concerned the importance of recognising the validity of different kinds of knowledge, which includes knowledge of different levels of reality, and knowledge arrived at from various angles. For Mayo Fuster, a vital challenge is to “develop the means to systematise the knowledge produced in the process of transformation, to make it accessible, to protect it from use and saturation by capitalist interests”.
“What do we mean by knowledge?” asked Joan Subirats. “Old knowledge, new knowledge, science, social construction of science. It is very important to be able to connect traditional with new ways of thinking and not to lose the strength of translation between traditions, between languages, between experiences. That for me is one of the most important challenges”. It is also we hope, one of the aims of the Networked Politics process.