Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?

One of the hats I wear in grassroots organizing work is that of a facilitator. I’ve facilitated a lot of long strategy and planning meetings for different organizations and movement groups. Facilitators have a lot of little tools and tricks to help structure groups’ time together. One such tool/trick is the “parking lot”. Basically, if someone says something that may be worthy of further conversation but is off-topic (i.e. not related to the current agenda item), you write it up on a big sheet of paper that says “PARKING LOT” at the top. The idea is that the group will get to it later, just as a driver eventually comes back to retrieve the car she parked in the lot. However, more often than not, “later” never comes, and the “parked” contribution gets stuffed into a filing cabinet or sent out in an email that no one ever gets around to reading. This is why some of my friends and collaborators with Iraq Veterans Against the War jokingly renamed the parking lot. They call it the “ideas cemetery” — “where ideas go to die.” This snarky name denotes how savvy facilitators can use the “parking lot” to derail contributions that they disagree with or dislike.

The reason this trick often works is because the derailed contributor feels heard. They can even see the idea they contributed written up at the front of the room, on display before everyone. They may not know exactly how, but it seems like there’s a chance that their idea could eventually be considered; that it may have an impact. If the facilitator were instead to openly oppose the idea, they may find themselves in an outright battle. It’s much more effective to create a visible space where the idea can “live” — without using up any oxygen in the real living world. As such, the “parking lot” can function as a virtual space that makes some sucker feel heard.

Perhaps the same is true of the Internet. The above story is my attempt to illustrate what I see as Jodi Dean’s main point in her must-read article Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. Dean takes technology enthusiasts to task — particularly those who claim that the Internet is furthering meaningful democratic participation in society. She argues that the Internet de-politicizes more than it politicizes.

According to Dean, it behooves us to recognize the “significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics.” Continue reading

Beautiful Trouble!

If you haven’t yet checked out the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, well, get on it! The book, was assembled by Andrew Boyd, who herded about 70 folks into writing a whole lot of short, outstanding essays about grassroots organizing, creative action, and social change. Beautiful Trouble is “a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current political moment…”

It’s a great book! You can order it here!

And it’s not just a book — it’s also a fantastic web toolbox.

I contributed seven chapters to the book (two of them in collaboration with other contributors). You can check them all out in the Beautiful Trouble web toolbox, and also below.

Participating in the project has been delightful. My organization, Beyond the Choir, collaborated with Agit-Pop, The Other 98%, Yes Lab, smartMeme, Center for Artistic Activism, Ruckus Society, Waging Nonviolence, Nonviolence International, Codepink, and Alliance of Community Trainers — fantastic folks!
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how language can limit tactical options

We know that movement groups adopt targets, tactics, and strategies not only because they have a good likelihood of being effective and because they are consistent with the group’s express ideological commitments, but also, often, because they are symbolically associated with people or things that are attractive for other reasons, or are symbolically opposed to people or things that are unattractive for other reasons.

—Francesca Polletta,
Three Mechanisms by Which Culture Shapes Movement Strategy:
Repertoires, Institutional Norms, and Metonymy,

(in the book Strategies for Social Change)

If we lack a strategy to achieve a political goal (within a social movement group), then by what criteria do we evaluate the success or failure of our tactics? In many of the groups I have worked with over the years, to be frank, we have not evaluated our tactics at all. And when we did, it was often without strategic criteria. Instead we often judged actions by how well they expressed the collective values of our group or subculture, rather than by how they brought us closer to achieving political goals.

This dynamic is rarely fully conscious or explicitly named in groups. No one says in an evaluation session, “I don’t see how our action moved us toward realizing any concrete goal, but it did reflect our values back to us very nicely, and therefore I think we should keep doing more of the same.”

So, what do people say? What are the processes that create group cultures that tend away from or obfuscate strategy? Continue reading

Activists in Google’s N-gram viewer

I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble. The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser].” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.

I was just wondering whether an N-gram viewer search might seem to support my claim in What’s wrong with activism? — that activism as we conceive of it is a pretty new thing. What’s wrong with activism, I argue, is how it has become such a thing unto itself — such a specialized identity — that “non-activists” can easily be inoculated against; how it extricates active politics from the fabric of everyday life.

Here’s what comes up searching the word “activist” 1912-2012 in N-gram viewer:

Usage of the term takes a dramatic upturn in the 1960s and continues to climb steadily up until the turn of the millenium. It’s declined a little since then. Does this mean anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides with the cultural trends of specialization and self-selection in U.S. society (discussed by folks like Ronald Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, etc.) is interesting.

Theory of Political Behavior SERIES


In July I wrote a four-part series elucidating parts of a theory of political behavior. This here is a landing page for that series. Here are the parts:

  1. A theory of political behavior
  2. Evolutionary logic of identity
  3. Political dimension of group identity
  4. Imagined communities & populist alignment

And here are a few “companion” posts that aren’t officially part of the series, but they relate:

TONIGHT in NYC: “Occupy Their Desire” discussion with Jodi Dean, Not An Alternative, and yours truly

Hey New York City-area friends, tonight I’ll be part of a discussion called Occupy Their Desire at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The panel will include Jodi Dean, the art/activism collective Not An Alternative, and yours truly — followed by a discussion. Here’s the info:

Tuesday, August 21
6:30pm – 8:30pm
Austrian Cultural Forum
11 East 52nd Street
New York, NY

It’s free, but you can make reservations. I hope to see you there.

Here’s the description from Not An Alternative:

Occupy Wall Street occupied mainstream media headlines via a question: what do they want, what are their demands? Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, pushed the question further when he enjoined occupiers not to be afraid to want what they desire — suggesting a gap between conscious want and unconscious desire. In effect, his injunction was for occupiers to occupy their desire; for us to occupy our desire.

Inspired by this, Not An Alternative will host a research discussion that investigates and inquires into the desires expressed by and repressed in Occupy Wall Street. The discussion explores questions such as:

  • How is the expression of desire a necessary element in building a movement?
  • Where has Occupy succeeded and failed in this task?
  • How might we contrast the movement’s expression of desire with that of the 2008 Obama campaign (Hope!), or traditional Left / progressive politics?
  • What role does representation play in the expression of desire — and relatedly, how do the disciplines of art, advertising and psychoanalysis inform this inquiry?

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underdog vs. winning team impulses

My floating signifier rant yesterday was tangential to the question I had set out to approach. Likely there will be a few more tangents still along the way… The section I was reading from Dynamics of Contention about the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines got me thinking about shifting and emerging political alignments — thinking about them with a “tipping point” metaphor. Picture a tug of war, where one side seems to be winning handily. When a few key actors switch sides, it suddenly shifts the balance and momentum. In the case of regimes and their challengers, the old regime may suddenly find itself weakened, perhaps beyond recovery, while a challenger movement or alignment finds itself potent and ascending.

This metaphor is considerably simpler than models I’ve been discussing here, like Ernesto Laclau’s models and diagrams (and my adaptations/bastardizations of them here). A tug of war certainly misses important pieces, primarily the typical asymmetry of power and resources between ruling regimes and their challengers. That picture is painted more accurately in Laclau’s more three-dimensional models. But a tipping point in a two-dimensional tug of war may capture something important about the psychological processes active in the minds and groups that defect from one side to the other.

Before digging into these psychological processes, a clarifying tangent is necessary; a complicating of the two-dimensional tug of war, so that we are clear about the limits of our lovely metaphors. The problem with the idea of an actor switching sides in a tug of war is that such a complete defection is extremely rare in the real world. A full conversion from one polarity to its opposite is a gross oversimplification. While such dramatic conversions are not unheard of, they are indeed rare and, importantly, shifts in hegemonic alignments do not depend on such dramatic individual conversions (i.e. on winning over your enemies). The spectrum of allies graphic below is a more instructive map of our “tug of war”:

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