This is by way of a report back. Over the past two years or so, I’ve been working, on and off, with an international network of new friends on an inquiry into `rethinking political organisation in an era of movements and networks’. We met mainly through the European and World Social Forums, the Transform!Europe Network and Transnational Institute related research in Italy and Brazil. The core of the project is four `lines of inquiry which we initially defined as follows:
- Movements, Networks and New Forms of Organization: The innovations and problems arising from ''movements'': their development in practice of a new approach to knowledge, new forms of action and organisation
- Political Parties and Rethinking Political Representation: Attempts at renewal taking place in political parties of the left and the experience of their limits and hence attempts at rethinking political representation and communication, beyond the existing political institutions.
- Public institutions in the network society. The ambivalences, dangers and opportunities of the multi-levelled political systems and the idea of the governance.
- Techno-political tools. The ''New techno–political tools'' made possible by the revolution in information technology and their potentialities for transformative thought, action and communication.
- It has influenced movements and emergent movements to make the issue of information and with it the production of knowledge from this information (processes of developing theories, understandings out of connecting and `making sense’ of information) central to their work and identity. Ask activists in some of the more effective movements and networks, for example the Network Against US Bases, the Southern Hemispheric Alliance which was central to the defeat –so far – of the US’ Free Trade Alliance- what have been the conditions of their success and you’ll find that central to their answer is their capacity to generate knowledge, knowledge of how the power structures work, knowledge of each other, the knowledge with which to develop strategy. You’ll also find that this capacity is the outcome of a steady process of experiment and trial and error in combining electronic communication with physical meetings. The former allows for a regular and sustained global flow of information and discussion, previously impossible. The meetings allow for deeper translations across cultural differences, the establishments of solidarities and trust which facilitate arguments over the internet and allow ( optimistically ;-)) for a deeper level consensus decision-making than is possible on the internet. They also allow for the elaboration of tacit forms of knowledge that only become explicit in the course of physical social interaction.
- It has strengthened the sustainability of participatory as distinct from representative forms of democracy and with it the education and self-education of those involved. Of course there are constant problems, tensions and risks of disguised authoritarianism (that we have discussed in the movement line of the Networked Politics inquiry) as well as the fundamental problem of technological inequality. But at least amongst those able to communicate online and occasionally to travel, there are in principle new possibilities of forms of co-ordination that work without a centralised leadership and that involve consensus decision-making or processes of swarming and convergence without a single plan.
- It has created the possibility of sustained networks thriving across and independent of national boundaries yet having the capacity to be everywhere, local to global, simultaneously, and to stimulate or help interconnect popular movements at these different levels. The very possibility of a non-state public sphere is obviously in part a product of the way that political decisions have moved beyond the national level and into an opaque and unspecified transnational sphere. The new and as yet inchoate non-state public sphere is being created as networks and movements chase and expose these shifts in decision-making and in power at the same time taking responsibility for creating, experimentally, new more appropriate and effective forms of democracy.This is a process which would have been impossible without the internet.
- It is important to stress the multi-media nature of the new communications possibilities. The possibilities of internet have radically influenced the more innovative non-digital media of the movements: not only in terms of their journalistic abilities to expose and report but also enabling them editorially to interact with their readership, the activists and intellectuals of the movements and become more directly a tool of the movements, potentially able to play a key role in stimulating connections, providing open space for debate and reflection and developing an transnational media and to do all this in a way which reaches beyond the digital divide (This is a significant factor not only on a North South basis but also paralleling the inequalities that cut through the societies of the North). The magazine, newspaper and website Carta in Italy would be a good example here, working with similar magazines across Europe; or Brecha in Uruguay with connections across Latin America would be good examples. Movement education institutions like the MST also illustrate the same potential of combining innovative use of internet technology with material forms of communication.