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Saturday, Mar. 08, 2003 at 9:31 PM
An overview of the critically important relationship... between online activism and the explosive growth taking place in the peace movement; specifically, how the internet can serve to expand and enhance that growth, if we online activists promote the application of the various internet tools to the organizational tasks of the mass movement -and do so in an organized, coordinated way.
Organize, Organize, Organize
Many and massive are the positive developments occurring alongside the atrocious antics of the imperial elites, msrs. Bush, Blair, and co.
First, we have the unprecedented mass demonstrations of Feb 15th -continuing, on a smaller scale in a wide diversity of communities each and every day, promising to come out in ever greater numbers in the days ahead.
No less important: the astonishing effect that the internet has had on the capacity of "we, the people" to stay abreast of elite shenanigans.
One need only mention the now infamous British "intelligence dossier," (exposed as a plagiarized fraud within twenty-four hours of its release) the Powell "munitions factory," (confirmed to be a television station, days later) and his "chemical weapons lab" become a bakery... (all uttered within a single speech on Feb. 5th at the UN) to illustrate how a new phenomena has appeared on the political landscape. No more can the corporate call-guys'n'gals count on a few weeks or month's delay before the substance of their lies squeaks into the sound-byte arena of "yesterday's news": now a vast network of dedicated dissidents in geek-garb hourly scour the world's news-services, sort fact from fill, and furiously copy, post, and reposit the popular consciousness back into the forefront of history-in-the-making.
Contained within these two forms: a vast diversity of avenues constituting the landscape of mass, democratic renewal.
More and more, internet activism and mass protest operate as companion parts of a single whole, (both containing elements of the other). While the peace movement does embody a great deal of organizational intelligence, and webmasters move mountains of code to get the word out, it seems useful to characterize the internet as the brains, and mass protest as the body of this, our political moment.
It remains for conscientious activists to recognize the strategic nature of this relatively new dynamic, now -that we may help move the struggle for social transformation to the next level.
Beneath the surface of the hundred-thousand+ footsteps marching in a hundred+ cities, an intricate network of grass-roots affinity-groups, spokes-councils, legal-defense teams, medics, drum troupes, street-theatre, etc. percolates in preparation for the next action.
At the same time, the limitations of the present peace movement are clear to see: in spite of roots which rise out of the widely diverse anti-globalization movement, the recent resurgence is still largely a single-issue phenomena: stop the war in Iraq; and further, the vast majority of participants are joining, (in the streets) with a relatively small body of affinity groups and spokes-councils... while not yet directly involved in organizations themselves.
To put it another way... the vast majority of the participants are newly connected to organizations and/or responding to a crisis on the world stage: the relentless drive of the Bush agenda, daily distractions in the news, the established presence of previous protest, e-mails by the folder-full -all combining to serve as the intersection-point, the spark igniting the embers of our discontent.
To build on this tentative sea of sympathy, to expand and consolidate the organizational capacity of an admittedly modest core -to transform a one-time, occasional gathering... into a sustaining network of organizations, (capable of taking our resistance into the arena of the underlying economic power): these are obviously the tasks that remain to be done.
If the (temporarily eclipsed) anti-globalization movement represents the breadth and diversity of grass-roots protest, united in common cause; and if the emerging World Economic Forum phenomena represents a gathering of solutions on an even larger scale; then this newly-arrived peace movement stands as the potential conduit through which millions of minds and bodies may move to embrace a lasting commitment to social change, and be as the bridge between what was and what might well be.
What is needed here, is more ORGANIZATION: more social formations, wherein people can gather to discuss the issues, plan and carry out actions... on an ongoing basis.
Perhaps it goes without saying that, when it comes to the construction and transformation of society, organization is everything. Social power IS people power, organized along certain lines. If a given elite is in "control" of a certain population, it is because they are sufficiently conversation with the mechanisms by which people (and those mechanisms) are organized to carry on the production of goods, distribution, control of weapons, etc. to keep us from rebelling. The ability of "we, the people" to run a society without the skills and larceny of the parasites at the top... is directly measured by our level of cooperative, mutually necessary ORGANIZATION.
Perhaps it also goes without saying: even with the impressive level of organization and dedication involved in the demonstrations of Feb. 15th; our movement, (insofar as its capacity to bring about fundamental social change is concerned) is still in its infancy.
"Organization," of course, (especially on a mass scale) must address questions of hierarchy, the decentralization of power, control, the voluntary coordination of strategy, communication, and so on. Just as important: the enrichment of the democratic experience within local organizations.
The hastily-gathered, (rather reactive) peace movement has temporarily placed these hard-won achievements of the anti-globalization movement on the back-burner; yet this will not last long. The awakening thirst for deep-democracy, participation, dialogue, must be answered. Our capacity to keep people interested and tuned in must be consolidated. (The lame lamentations of "The Nation" Institute, [Corn, Cooper] are but the distorted shadows of a constructive debate that needs to take place on a scale not yet seen beyond the boundaries of the imagination).
Now, the most obvious limitation to internet activism... is that access is still restricted to a minority of the population, (the poor, especially, are excluded); but the numbers are growing significantly every day; and especially significant, is that it is the younger, (generally more radical) generations which are most conversant with it.
An ultimately far more important limitation: while internet activism appears perhaps even more decentralized, diverse, and non-hierarchical than the movement in the streets, a closer look reveals that this is largely because it is far less-organized.
If we look at the mass of internet activity, (websites, e-mailing, bulletin-boards, etc) we see that it profoundly proceeds from the point of individual expression. People are generally free to post what they want, come and go as they like, and work with others on the basis of free mutual interest.
This is its strength; yet also its weakness; for, hidden beneath the surface of this "free-association" is the hierarchy of the one who controls the website, the message-board, list-serve, rolodex; and, until we both, embrace and step beyond the boundaries of personal debate, (into a commitment to nurture a larger, collective one) we simply avoid the difficult questions of "what is OUR goal?" "What is OUR mission statement?" "Who -and how do we determine who- has the authority to speak for US?" and so on...
Online, we share mountains of opinions and facts about what's going on and what should be done; yet we rarely raise the question: how are WE going to DO something about it all? practically-speaking? (that is, besides "show up at the demo," or, "let's organize a conference").
The "we" question mirrors the fundamental question/challenge surrounding the movement in the streets: the relationship between the local affinity group and the wider coalition.
Until now, the internet has largely served as a supplement to that movement, (giving us an ability to dramatically speed up communications and store/access information). While there's been an affinity between cyberspace and street, there's also been a disconnect: sharing ideas online, we often then go DO things with a whole other community of people in the "real world"; in turn, the tasks and challenges rising at the street level are only marginally reflected in the online debates. Our continuing inability to tackle the "we" question, online, will simply reflect a stagnation, an unrealized organizational capacity in the wider movement.
If we look at the nature of the internet and the peace movement, we can see that the latter largely consists of a build-up to periodic events, while the former stands as a continuous, ongoing store of information and vehicle for debate. With the peace movement, the dynamic, mass debate, dialogue, and outreach is largely restricted to the build-up and enactment surrounding those big events. It's very difficult to generate and sustain that kind of enthusiasm, experience, (participation, discipline, realization, etc.) outside of the sporadic build-up: once the event is over, people largely go back to their homes, until the next interesting "event" appears on the horizon. The internet is perfectly poised to become the "sounding board" of the movement's build-up from action to action -to help us sustain the dialogue at a high level, as a permanent fixture of our political consciousness.
In order to do this, we online activists need to apply the cyberspace tools to the "street" conditions and tasks -in an ORGANIZED manner.
One of the ways webmasters can do this, of course, is to try and ORGANIZE the information on their/our sites in as clear and accessible a way as possible. The effectiveness of this, however, will be quite limited if we do not also engage the "we" question in the process. After all, there is only so much information that a single person or group can master, (even if it's to try and master them all, to a modest degree). By working together, linking up with one another in a conscious, intentional manner, we can leverage one on another's expertise, raising the clarity and depth of the larger whole. ("Web-rings" are already a well-known fixture of the online landscape. Generally, they have represented loose associations, lacking in the intensity of focus suggested here). If such a clarity of intent was to become an established fixture, it would -in turn- likely go a long way to encouraging individual webmasters to organize their information more effectively.
More-fundamentally, we need to work with other activists, online, to mirror the structure of the global movement as a whole; and thereby, bring our capacity for reflection into full, continuous focus. We need to create parallel online organizations, (affinity-groups, spokes-councils, federations) that can mirror the challenges facing the "real-world" organizations, right down to the grass-roots level.
This is not to suggest a replacement of those "real," physical organizations with online ones, nor suggest that they act with any decision-making authority -save what the local organization ascribes to it. (Legitimate power must ultimately reside from the bottom up, from local groups; the centralized "brain" must always serve the many). A "parallel" structure, online, simply allows us to put the "real-world" dialogue of "us," "we," (already taking place around the build-up to events) onto a ongoing, permanent footing.
Such a "structure" implies a diversity of forms and uses. For example, many local groups are already using the internet as a mechanism for discussion, decisions, tactics. It's also possible for activists to develop organizational "proto-types" -generic structural forms that many activists can use as a vehicle for discussing the larger, intra-organizational questions, and to provide activists with practical tools/experience (common to many groups) which they can apply to their own, unique situations.
Without question, the best example of this has to be the various indymedia organizations around the world, albeit, largely restricted to the realm of alternative media. Other examples include Micheal Ruppert's "Town Action Groups," (copvcia.com) or the "Citizen Councils" at the Global Rennaisance Alliance. Obviously, these reflect but a humble beginning.
We can anticipate this process developing from both directions, (and all points in between): from the local affinity group up to the spokes-council, coalition/federation; from the broadest, most general level on down. We can also expect this simultaneous development to depend upon the creation of a supportive online culture, whereby a significant number of individual activists go ahead, and begin promoting the dialogue in various ways, (before one effectively exists).
It must be a whole, many-sided development, which attempts to tackle the "we" question head on; for, as you may know, cyberspace is generally quite resistant to answering it, in contrast to the movement in the streets.
In the "real world," it tends to be fairly clear: what the concrete possibilities and barriers are to achieving a given change. If they're not too clear, we hash them out in meetings under relatively tangible circumstances, (a given protest, on a given day, place, permits, flyers, speakers, etc). If things are still not clear after a few meetings, we generally score one for the police informants, wacky ideologues, or walking wounded, and abandon the association.
In cyberspace, there is much more room for us to let disagreements or misunderstandings fade off into la la land, while we silently turn our attention elsewhere, or simply click the computer screen off, (with no one the wiser). E-mails go unresponded to, or selectively so. Without the face, the voice directly in front of us, it's much harder to feel the concrete need to advance our communal understanding; and yet, if we don't apply this "real-world" sensibility to our internet work, we are simply undermining our ability to assist that larger, real-world movement in its organizational needs.
In raising this issue, it is not my place or intention to offer some kind of "blueprint" for how we might proceed. A collective, shared creation of this breadth must take on a vast diversity of forms, compliments of inspiration emanating from all quarters. I am simply putting forward the need for a common platform and commitment for discussing the "we" question, online, so that all those forms of inspiration can have a sustained focus through which to take shape; and I further suggest the absolute necessity, that those of you who "get" the underlying idea here, undertake various actions to help bring it about... so that its' value as a mass-movement vehicle can then become visible to many others, and eventually become a self-evident fact of history.
Online "federations" are not going to come into being until there are a large number of online "spokes-councils" operating, demanding a wider, inclusive body. "Spokes-councils" will only be flourishing online, if the long-term vision of affinity-group members, (leading towards federations) is strong; and again, such a vision will not be strong, unless webmasters, list-serve operators, etc. place the issue of ORGANIZATION at the forefront of their online activity.
Obviously, there are many ways to do this.
A simple and direct way for a web-site host: place an "organize" link on your main page, and present the issues as you see them. Or simply begin a discussion amongst your local online community. Message-boards, list-serves, and especially "live" chat rooms are excellent tools for this -provided that there is the organizational clarity and intent to keep the "we" factor in focus.
The critical key to remember, in my opinion, (whatever the initiative): the tone of the discussion should be more invitation than statement; the emphasis, not on answering a given question, so much as creating space into which other people can move, fill in some space and create more space for others... ideas, serving to expand the "we" factor.
We need to move away from simply expressing, to create a space where effective listening can take place.
This is so much easier to say than do, to be sure. Most people who have tried to sew the seeds of such discussion, (especially online) have likely discovered how difficult it is for people to really listen to one another -and/or not become bored/distracted while someone else is weighing in.
If the above suggestions were to begin taking root, it would probably become even more-profoundly clear: what a mind-boggling deficiency of democratic experience we have, growing up in our modern culture.
Ultimately, the question of organization is about COMMUNITY: the often-unseen ties which bind us together in common cause, mutual sense of being, ongoing dialogue.
I think it no exaggeration to say the relative absence of community is the defining characteristic of our times, harkening back to the birth of the capitalist era, when the mass of the European agricultural communities were forcibly driven from the land.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent, than online. The mechanism, the communications vehicle is constant, but the human "communities" that use it largely rise and fall with the passage of each new season's events: invasions, scandals, enron, Sept. 11, War with Iraq.
We have not yet seemed to grasp, as activists, the need to not only attract people to a cause, but also cultivate an internal, communal experience wherein people will want to stay connected, and continually deepen their sense of commitment, loyalty. We apparently take for granted the existence of traditional communities, (family, neighbourhood, culture) as a given -not recognizing that the "commons" at the core of society, (which has been usurped by the hidden hand of the corporate elite) will need to be consciously re-created. Perhaps it is precisely because our online activity is somewhat abstracted from our physical, sensual experience, that the internet may be the perfect tool for us to grasp this cultural imperative, in all its many guises.
I personally noticed this at work recently, in relation to my involvement with the 9/11 investigative "community."
From a diversity of active message-boards, chat-rooms, the discussions slowly whittled down to a few list-serves of the most-dedicated; from here, an even smaller core of activists gathered around the intent to lay the groundwork for a broad-based, citizen's commission. At a critical juncture, when the foundation of a small but committed community was beginning to coalesce, the focus seemed to shift back to the standard, activist method of expanding organizations: outreach.
This is the prevailing tendency in most off-line organizations: people get together, print off flyers, plan a conference, in the hopes of attracting the people upon which to build the organization, but little or no thought is put to how and why those people would want to STAY in the organization.
So 5,000 arrive for the conference, 100 sign-up to get more involved, 25 actually go to a few meetings, and a few get seriously involved before it becomes clear that the initiative is going nowhere.
History shows that our modern protest movements keep going through massive peaks and valleys of involvement, (Vietnam war in the 70's, Peace, Women's, Environmental movement in the 80's, anti-globalization) with the underlying deficiency of organization remaining unchanged: social-change groups and movements, typically operated by an extremely dedicated few, who make up for the lack of collective support by working furiously to attract new members: "gotta get those flyers up," "make those phone calls," "make that banner," etc.
We ourselves may indeed be feeling a strong sense of purpose, and consider the act of questioning the heavy work load to be a luxury our conscience cannot afford, ("somebody's got to do it," "it's got to get done"); yet this may only serve to keep us few in number, precisely because we are so focused, (tactically) on attracting more numbers.
While "getting the word out" is important, it's only half the battle. The "build-it-and-they-will-come" school of organizing ultimately fails us if we don't pay attention to the factor which KEEPS people wanting to be involved: community.
By "community," of course, we must understand that a large, diverse group of people with a common, ongoing bond is but the outer expression of an understanding which must begin at the most intimate level of two, three, and so on; or, more to the point, whereas most of us seem to think of "real" community in terms of its numbers, we need to be thinking about the quality of experience within the community as primary, (and let the numbers follow from there, however humble our beginnings may need to be).
This indeed, may be the defining conundrum of our times: the vision of all, seen from within, at a hundred-thousand-plus points at one and the same time; the heavy burden of so much pain and suffering alongside the delicate demands of the human heart... that make each new step seem like an agonizing delay; the willingness to wade through the loneliness, transcendent love, receive the tidal wave of emotion, embrace the gentle gesture that washes away all but the certainty of greater good and sober truth; the grand transformation, renewed, and with each new link of arm, in arm, one after another, we move forward.
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