Techno-politics?

25 June 2007
Article
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:
  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. Public institutions in the network society. The ambivalences, dangers and opportunities of the multi-levelled political systems and the idea of the governance.
  4. 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.
You can read more about it on it’s website (and also sign up to the discussion list if you are interested),1 . A distinctive focus has been the many influences at many different levels of transformative politics, practical and conceptual, of developments in information technology. A recognition of this is having a slow but powerful effect on my thinking. It has both reinforced fundamental aspects of the pre-web ways in which I and many others were rethinking political organisation on the left2 At the same time, the Networked Politics project’s discussion of information technology is stimulting entirely new trains of thought. I am still very much a curious but novice traveller in the world of information technology and so a little shy of my intellectual travelogue.But for what it is worth here is a report of currents of thought sparked especially by our recent seminar in Berlin (that was part of the resistence to the G8) but also drawing on discussions in three earlier seminars and workshops. The discussions in Berlin led me to focus more consciously than I ever had before on the implications of internet technology for the three major issues of our inquiry labour and social movements; the commons and the public; political representation and democracy. Each current of thought was, for me, sparked off by a modest drama of one person throwing fundamental questions onto the stage and others picking it up, juggling a little and tossing it back and forth, each time changing its character. The variety of experiences and histories which people brought to the discussions, was important to the many modest `dramas of ideas’ that took place in Berlin. Here I just report on the currents of thoughts that ceated sparks for me!! 1.Political representation and democracy beyond representation. It was the Italian and Brazilian participants in earlier workshops, in Manchester and Barcelona, who presented a key political challenge: the importance of social movements having a strong autonomy from the existing political institutions, if they are to be effective forces of transformation. But it was not until Berlin that we considered directly the importance – and limits – of information technology in providing tools to answer this challenge. Alessandra Mecozzi, International Secretary of the Italian Metal Workers Union and a leading activist in the Italian peace movement spoke at Manchester at the time that Italian troops were going to Lebanon. Her voice had a sense of urgency as she spoke of the problem facing the peace movement of “how to develop the capacity to follow an independent strategy and its own perspectives. This is the urgent issue now in relation to questions of peace and war”. Melissa Pomeroy, until recently an activist in the Brazilian Workers Party spoke in Barcelona from experience of the difficulties of the movements constructing and confidently promoting an independent agenda and timetable of their own.” How do the tools and the culture generated around the internet technology help to answer this challenge? My first attempt answer maybe naïve but after Berlin it goes like this: The discussion of networks informed by internet technology consolidates, qualititatively expands and sustains the theory and practice of a non-state public sphere, first begun by in the North by movements proud of their autonomy in the 1970’s (most notably the feminist movement) and in the South by experiences of participatory democracy in the 80’s and 90’s. Fundamental to the character, the conditions of possibility and sustainability of such a sphere are strong, dense and creative means of communications. The leap in the technological possibilities of such communication on a multi-media basis have had several (obvious, I guess) consequences for the potential of the movements, networks and conflicts that constitute and create this non-state public sphere:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
All these features and more point towards the importance of improving the means of communication, reflexivity and self-education, as a fundamental for strengthening the autonomy of the movements or more broadly of the non-state public sphere. Obviously, this implies a break from the various movement models which in some ways mirror or imitate the cultures and structure of existing political parties. It does not imply abandoning representatative democracy to the political parties of neo-liberalism; indeed without the qualitative strengthening of a non-state public sphere experimenting with participatory forms of democracy, representative institutions are de facto dominated by various brands of the neo-liberalism (the 101 varieties of `Blatcherism’ ) It is movements and conflicts based in such a sphere that potentially have the capacity from their autonomous base and with their social and cultural rather than conventional institutional sources of power, to challenge the structures that constrain and limit even the most radical political representatives. Underlying the aspiration of a non-state public sphere is the importance of developing common values, understandings, organisational, creative and solidaristic bonds across the variety of disaffected and searching networks and associations in civil society. The difficulty and counter-conventional character of this process cannot be over emphasised. The dominant and institutionalised political cultures all serve to destroy such crossing, horizontal relations, to suck all relations upwards into the maelstrom of institutional politics.It’s not that long since such horizontal communication and colaboration was effectively prohibited in parts of the unions and the left parties (when I worked with several Trades Council on a collaborative investiagtion into the 1974 Labour government’s indusrial polices, all three Trades Councils received a letter from an apparatichik at the TUC banning us from initiatiing such collaboration without getting first asking them – unthinkable nowadays and of course we ignored it then) The effective destruction of the momentum of the emerging movement left created in France around the European `no’ is but the latest example of the destructive weight of national, vertical politics. The history of the left in the UK is littered with skeletons of movements or would-be movements drawn away from their potential base by the institutional pulling power of national parliamentary politics.(Compass is in danger of being the latest victim) . It is a process which is becoming weaker as the real substance of these institutions itself slips away to global market and intra-elite institutions. But the debilitating impact of the existing political institutions, corrupt and deracinated as they are, can only be effectively countered by giving some institutional strength to an alternative, global, locally and thematically inter-connecting dynamic. The qualitative development of the means of horizontal communications is fundamental to this. But the opportunities opened up through online tools need constantly to be consolidated and developed through institutional innovations in the material world – plus a degree of disciplined caution and sometimes abstinence about direct engagement in from the decaying but corrosive institutions of national politics. 2. Labour and movements. In the case of rethinking labour, Marco Berlinguer from Transform! Italia put forward the idea that to recreate politics we need to rediscover and rethink labour. Marco himself is involved in an interesting project in Italy linking social movements and the different parts of the CGIL.(It’s called `Lavoro in Movimento’). How far and in what way can labour help to give a radical and sustainable coherence to the diverse sources of resistance to globalisation? He asked. An especially important idea in the response of Carlo Formenti who once worked as a trade unionist in engineering in Northern Italy and is now a professor of new media theory in Lecce in the South. He argued that modern-day capitalism is only capable of reproducing its rule by taking language, communications, emotions and feelings and ‘putting them to work.’3 He gave the example of the web “communities” initiated or taken over by corporations, like MySpace and Utube. People engage in these ‘communities’ innocently, playfully, with little sense of them as commercial activities. Yet, in reality this growing expression of sociality is being used to map and profile markets, turning these ‘communities’ into lucrative targeted marketed places - the very opposite of innocent social interaction. Formenti’s analysis took me back to Marx’s original understanding of labour – only vaguely remembered; I’m not wanting to open a `Marxology’ discussion - of social creativity, the creative capacity of the human as a social being. `Living labour’ was Marx’s concept. Marx’s focus was on the way in which capitalist production turned this capacity for creative action into a commodity, `labour’, the source of surplus value, with the worker treated as `labour power’ and his/ her living labour becoming the source of `dead labour’ that is the accumulated capital which became a means of exploitation of future generations. But we know that there are many further ways in which capitalist production utilises and constricts social creativity in the process of ensuring capital accumulation and domination. What Formenti is pointing to is the distinct form of commercialisation, and consequent suppression of creative capacity, characteristic of network capitalism. This wider understanding of labour, pointing beyond the direct capitalist-waged worker relation, surely provides a potential for rethinking the role of labour –social creatitivity – in connecting different forms of resistance. Just to remind ourselves of other, still relevant aspects of this broader understanding of capitalist suppression of social creativity (which includes of course sociality, autonomy, reflexivity and all the elements and conditions for exercising such human potential). It has been an important theme in the women’s movement. Feminists have long argued that under capitalism, housework and care for children and partners, became ‘domestic labour’, the reproduction of labour power, carried out on the basis of an oppressive division of labour in which creative relations of love and solidarity are distorted by the constraining context and pressures of gender domination and wage labour. The processes of privatisation of public services also involves the appropriation of forms of labour that though bureaucratised and also, like domestic labour, distorted by the wider context and pressures of the capitalist market, nevertheless had important ethical foundations of creativity in the service of the public good. Advertising, one of the main targets of the anti-consumerism of the movements and counter culture of the 60’s and 1970’s could also be said ‘to put to work’ people’s emotions, language, communications for commercial purposes (analysed in ‘The Hidden Persuaders’). Advertising, pre-information technology was a one-way process – people could ignore adverts, they also learnt to subvert them but they could not turn the means of communication into production of different social relations driven by opposing social values. The point about web technology of course is that on the one hand, it is a pervasive means of creating new markets behind people’s backs as it were, but on the other hand through a wide range of means – whether peer to peer downloading; websites sharing/exchanging labour or services in kind; the spreading, promoting and lubricating of the social economy – it is also a massively powerful means of lessening dependence on the capitalist market, and of doing so on an unprecedented scale. In this way, one of the paradoxes of network capitalism is that the same technology that is leading to relentless efforts to stimulate new markets to realise profits from huge leaps in productivity (and with it huge leaps in stress and work intensification) is also enabling the same people who are suffering from the stresses of intensified production and incessant commercialism to see and test for themselves, the possibilities of breaking out of the economic relations that produce rampant commercialism and overwork. The full realisation of these possibilities depends on all sorts of structural changes including, no doubt, a basic income for all. But the point here is that a new potential exists of connecting resistance and alternatives around issues of culture, consumption and daily life with organising around dignity and control of work. The connection lies in the common theme of labour interpreted in its broadest sense as social creativity, living labour, or the human capacity to act. Capitalist uses of information technology both to increase productivity without any reduction in levels of exploitation – e.g. reduction in working time – and to create new markets to realise these new levels of surplus value, brings together these two dimensions of human exploitation more transparently and directly than ever. At the same time and in this context of intensifying pressures of work and cultural suffocation, the net technology means that those who design and use it have the capacity and autonomy to begin to illustrate alternative relations between consumptions and production. Where does this lead? Like many of our discussions and threads of thought, we can’t be sure, but at least it points to an underlying connectedness between struggles around labour/social creativity of many different sorts from the refusal or withdrawal of labour, through resistance to precarity to spreading/ creating the conditions for autonomous social creativity- the emerging alternative economy, `freeganism’ (finding ways of living for free), promoting free software and resisting the commercialisation of web. This emphasis on a shared but necessarily networked struggle for the conditions of social creativity does also marks the break – which has been implicit since 1968 - from socialism’s exclusive focus on questions of structure towards also addressing questions of social interaction, the development of the individual personality, and sustainable relations with nature. This shift was also evident shift in the discussion of the commons, institutions of property and the nature of the public and again it is strengthened by the way that reflecting on the nature of open software opens up new thinking about these issues. Commons, property and the public Arturo di Corinto, Italian media activist and prolific writer and film maker on issues of the media and the commons, set out a bold vision of free software as a common resource: freely accessible, non –exclusive, something which everyone can make use of, even if they have not participated directly in its creation; bringing together producers and users; it’s quality is enhanced by its use; the community of open soft developers is based on certain rules of self-organisation, leading to the emergence of a complex system. These are some of the characteristics of the virtual commons. Glenn Jenkins, coming from a prolonged struggle in Luton, just outside London, to turn land and buildings into commons, material commons, and now to use them as a base for turning public services into commons, insisted that equal space be given to material commons. A teasing repartee developed between them; but behind it was a serious issue of what the two had in common, could learn from each other, could gain from the tension. For me, one connecting theme between the virtual and the material commons concerns the social and individual use and development of knowledge. The virtual commons is based on the open, shared and collaborative as well as individually creative development of knowledge, valuing the knowledge of producer and user and working with processes by which they can interact. This surely provides a basis for rethinking the `public’ as the commons, which presents a more sustainable alternative to the encroachments of the private, than does any defence of the public in its original form. The focus on knowledge provides a useful foundation here. Historically, the organisation of knowledge in `public’ spheres – public services, public administration, public industry – has been based on a hierarchical, bureaucratic and individualistic approach to knowledge, separating the producer or provider from the user, protecting rigid boundaries between different kinds of knowledge, working with strong a strong proprietal approach in terms of institutional ownership. (The predominant approach to knowledge of the private corporations which are increasingly taking over the public, has loosened up internally, with more interactive, informal forms of management, more horizontal flows within the company (taking over many of the culture of the ‘60’s 70’s) but the imperatives of commerce and profit make them have secretive and proprietorial about the development of knowledge, imposing strict boundaries between producers and users and the wider community.) The notion of a public good that is n’t in some sense a common good is becoming less and less sustainable. But in the North in particular there are not many live sources of inspiration for a vision of the commons, for creative collaboration between users and producers underpinning a genuinely common ownership of the service or natural or built resource. In the South of course there is, in the indigenous approach to land and natural resources and the deep and widespread legacy of those traditions evident in strong social movements like the MST which not only struggle for land reform but through occupations and co-operative agriculture create new economic commons. The virtual commons provides a powerful inspiration in the North for rethinking the public (or conceptualising the rethinking that is in practice taking place) as the commons. The idea of development through use is especially suggestive. To apply this to public services like education, health and so on highlights the way that the effectiveness and innovative capacity of these knowledge based services depends on a collaboration between users and producers/providers, thereby treating users and public sector workers (not just the managers or experts) as knowledgeable collaborators in a developmental process. This points therefore to the need for new more directly participative and power sharing forms of organisation through which such collaboration can be achieved. This assumes that the service user potentially has the creative capacity to recognise a problem and help in the process of identifying a solution through a collaborative process. (This is in stark contrast to the traditional idea of `the delivery’ of public services to a (assumed to be) grateful but more or less passive public). Here, open software is not just a source of metaphor but it is also a tool for facilitating this kind of collaboration between individual users and public sector workers, helping to shift the balance of power from centralised public service management towards the user and the skilled service provider. It is also a tool of shifting co-ordination between different parts of a public service from a hierarchical to a co-operative model. This in turn will allow for greater autonomy in the local provision of local services under active local control while at the same time collaborating and co-ordinating across a wider territory. These are some of the ways in which work on Networked Politics has opened up for me a greater understanding of – and curiosity about – how the potentialities and ambivalences of the new information technology – in its multiple forms - must underpin our rethinking and our remaking of political organisation. Notes 1 A pamphlet summarising the first phase of this work Networked Politics; Rethinking Political Organisation in an Era of Networks and Movements 2 In my case in for example Beyond the Fragments (Merlin) with Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal, Arguments for a New Left (Blackwells) with friends involved in dialogues with civic movemnets in Centraland Eastern Europe and more recently in Reclaim the State (Verso), with friends involved in experiements in partcipatory democracy) 3 See the Reader for Berlin for both these and other papers.