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

music and politics, real and retreat

My recent visit to Barcelona happened to coincide with an amazing party at the biggest squat I have ever been to in my life. Seriously, the Can Masdeu is lord of all squats. It is big enough to eat all the other squats I’ve ever visited. The party was to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the squatters’ and the community’s successful thwarting of a several-day police eviction attempt. Folks were pretty stoked at the party. I danced until 6:30am, and as I left, I passed probably 100 more people who were just arriving. That’s how they roll in Barcelona.

Can Masdeu: it’s big.

At around midnight I got to experience something really moving and intimate. A group of singers herded/ushered a couple hundred of us into a big room in the middle of the huge squatted building. The whole property had once been a leper colony, and apparently this room had been a big bathing room. The walls were stone, the ceiling high, the lights were low, with a small disco ball hanging from the ceiling, slowly rotating. The room was packed full, most folks sitting on the floor, everyone listening intently. There were maybe 15 singers, accompanied by one Spanish guitar. They sang several old songs from the Spanish revolution (e.g Ay Carmela). It was breathtaking, conjuring so much history, beauty, and tragedy.

Listening to the singers, I started thinking about how important group singing is to social movements. I had previously heard old original recordings of some of the songs — had heard the hope in the chorus of voices. Sitting there, I thought about how persistently Miles Horton emphasizes group singing in his (must-read) autobiography. And then I was trying to recall the details of a study I’d read that asserted evidence that deep primal group bonding is achieved through group singing. More and more thoughts, stream of consciousness. I had brought a pen just in case I might have some thoughts (they’d been coming frequently during my travels!). I quickly jotted them down on the backside of the directions (to the party) my friend had printed for me:

Is there a parallel in the extrication of politics from the fabric of most people’s lives (and groups) and the extrication of music? Music, like politics, is still in our lives in that it is all around us, but we are passive to its force. It affects us, but we lack agency — we defer to musicians as we defer to politicians (or even to “activists”). Music, politics, sex — everything primal and powerful — is sterilized, arrested, under control, and sold back to us as a tame consumer good. We are passive. We are spectators.

Continue reading