judy rebick

Transforming Power: From The Personal To The Political

By Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada, November 30, 2008, $24.00

While the new Left of the 1960’s, feminism, and various New Age projects challenged authoritarianism, the political Left never managed to change its authoritarian and patriarchal mode of functioning. The Left believed that to be effective and take on a centralized and authoritarian power, they, too, had to concentrate power. For the social democratic Left, the pressure of the media to conform to highly managed political interventions and, eventually, to highly managed political conventions was deadly to internal party democracy. As early as 1979, British socialist feminists were making the argument that the political Left needed to transform itself, following the example of the new social movements, most importantly the feminist movement.

But the problem goes beyond patriarchal modes of functioning to our very notions of power. The Left has always seen power as being located in the state and in the corporations. The way to change the world was to get state power and make changes to state and economic structures. The women’s movement, anti-racist groups, and the environmental movement introduced the idea that we must also change our personal behaviour if we want to change the world. All these movements broadened the idea of politics into the realm of the personal relationships between humans and the environment. Power was understood as something each of us exercises in our lives as part of a dominant group, including our human dominance over nature and its creatures. These ideas of power were influential in organizations and in community, but somehow didn’t change our ideas of political change. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of that kind of change in the notions of transformative power.

Given the failure of the Left, the labour movement, and the social movements to creatively resist neo-liberalism, it makes sense that when a new generation emerged to fight corporate globalization, they created horizontal structures and demonstrated an abhorrence of any kind of top-down leadership. In the demonstrations against the various summits of the WTO, FTAA, G8, and the rest of the alphabet soup of global-governance institutions, young demonstrators set up affinity groups and spoke circles that made decisions by consensus.

These affinity groups have morphed into a new kind of movement politics that is most advanced in Europe. It is called networked politics, and it is tremendously effective in a number of ways. Many of the most visible protests in Europe, such as the Spanish response to the 2004 Madrid subway bombings, the rebellion of immigrant youth in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, and the mass upsurge in France in 2006 against a new employment bill that discriminated against young workers, were all organized through informal networks. When formally organized political forces wanted to set up a coordinating body to institutionalize these semi-spontaneous uprisings, none of the young people involved were interested. Not only do these groups resist any kind of formal structure, they also opt out of the corporate global media system by refusing to have identifiable leaders or spokespeople.

Jeff Juris, an American activist and academic from this new generation, explains that "none of these practices or ideas are necessarily new; these discussions go back to the debate in the early part of the twentieth century about different kinds of organization [between anarchists and socialists]. But technology facilitates more decentralized practices, and allows for scalability. In the debate between vertical and horizontal forms, the horizontal forms perhaps have more of an advantage than they used to, so they are diffusing relatively widely."

The World Social Forum is probably the largest and most complex political network in the world. Its Charter of Principles contains three principles of horizontality. One is respect for diversity that not only values and celebrates political, social, and cultural diversity, but sees the need to constantly extend the network to new actors. The second principle is that no individual or organization can speak in the name of the network. People may speak for themselves or for their own organizations, but no one speaks for the World Social Forum. The third has to do with the inevitable decision-making process that comes from this form of organization, and it insists on consensus.

Before you roll your eyes and say that this could never work on a large scale considering the complexity of modern society, we should look at a very similar network that has taken on mighty Microsoft and produced an amazingly successful computer operating system, as well as numerous programs that many believe are of much higher quality than the corporate product. Open source software functions like a network, in many ways similar to the World Social Forum.

The open source system, also called Linux, was created by Linus Torvalds, whose approach has been characterized as "release [program codes] early and release often; delegate everything you can; be open to the point of promiscuity." In theory, this could result in products and projects that were chaotic and contradictory. However, Linux competes successfully with Microsoft, which is based on the old proprietary methods, and continues to grow.

Contributors to open source projects are motivated by the challenge of writing new code, building on the creativity of others, and the chance to act as partners in the project, rather than by personal financial gain. Challenge and the opportunity to collaborate must be available before a person can start an open source project, or a project founded on the open source model. While people pursue their individual interests, they are doing so while promoting the good of all. Thus, while each person is actually following his or her own agenda, the end result also benefits everyone else involved. In a way, open source turns the neo-liberal ideal of self-interest as a motivating force for the market on its head, liberating the creativity of each individual but in the context of a collective project, in which sharing knowledge and building on the knowledge of others becomes the goal — rather than profit and competition.

This is a particularly exciting idea, because one of the acknowledged strengths of capitalism is its capacity for innovation, and we are always told that money must be the motivating force for that innovation. Open source proves that challenge — rather than money — can be the motivating force for innovation.

The metaphor of "open source" is also becoming a key element in the new ideas about democracy. The code is legible, transparent, and open. It can be modified by anyone and favours individual autonomy, participation, and control over giving power to a representative or a particular group. Openness, as an ethical principle, also refers to reciprocal listening, communication, connectivity, and inclusion.

The Obama campaign used the principles of networked politics both to fundraise and to organize. The most sophisticated online fundraising operation in the world, www.moveon.org, was assisting him, and obviously he has brilliant online strategists from the generation that grew up with networking online. While the campaign machine itself was probably organized in a fairly traditional, professional, top-down manner, they were organizing a grassroots campaign. If you signed up as a volunteer, you could get a list of phone numbers of people to call and a script of what to say. No one monitored what you were doing; you didn’t have to join the Democratic Party to do it, or go to a meeting to be trained. They just assumed that if you supported Barack Obama and wanted to volunteer time, then they wanted you involved.

In the kickoff of the presidential campaign, they contacted every supporter from the primary races to get involved in a day of action. The message read:

A year ago this week, our grassroots supporters organized a nationwide canvass in more than 1,000 cities to introduce people to Barack Obama.

Since then, we’ve had an unprecedented primary season that built a grassroots infrastructure in all 50 states — not just for Barack, but for all of the Democratic candidates.

Now it’s time to bring all of that energy together for our common cause of change.

All across the country, Democrats, Independents, and even Republicans are tired of the politics of the past and are looking for new solutions to the challenges we’re facing.

That’s why we’re launching a nationwide day of action on Saturday, June 28th, called "Unite for Change" — and asking you to host a Unite for Change meeting in your neighborhood. In all 50 states, supporters like you — seasoned veterans and first-time volunteers alike — will host house meetings to reach out and bring together folks who supported all of the Democratic candidates (and those who are just tuning in to the process now).

The goal is to come together and use the common values we share to build a united volunteer organization in your neighborhood that will register new voters and build support locally.

It’s going to be an amazing time, and hosting your own event is easy. We’ll provide all the tools and resources you’ll need. Here are the details:

Unite for Change Meetings
Saturday, June 28th
Host one in your community

That’s it. Anyone who got that email could host a meeting for Barack Obama. Notice how the e-mail message gives credit to the grassroots supporters for beginning the process, and how easy and fun it makes it for someone to host an event at their house. The Obama campaign provided the tools and resources and left it up to the individual to handle the meeting. That kind of confidence in supporters is rarely seen in a traditional campaign, in which control over the message and the campaign is of paramount importance.

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh says the Obama campaign will transform electoral politics in the same way as the Kennedy-Nixon debate, which marked the moment that television took over electoral campaigns. According to Hirsh, this is the moment that the internet will take over. Hirsh is not an Obama supporter, but he is impressed with his campaign’s understanding of the online culture. "The whole language of his site, its community, its friends, its social inclusion, its social movement, it’s the cloud campaign in the sense that there’s a commanding control mechanism that’s keeping tight control of the messaging and the candidate, but the rest of it is this feel-good kind of cultural milieu, where they’re getting you to work, and they’re getting you to donate, and they’re getting you to fundraise, and they’re getting you to do all the things that a normal campaign would do. But the language, the tone and the culture are all social. It’s all social networking, it’s all community building, it’s all the internet love-in, as the Facebook thing is."

Networked politics has its weaknesses, of course. While open source is a great challenge to the capitalist dogma that only money and competition can create innovation, as a governance structure it has shortcomings. Jesse Hirsh points out, "Open source’s problem is governance. They don’t have a governing structure. They don’t have a dialogue about governing structure. They have a dialogue about how to manage code, which is a type of governance structure. But they don’t have a dialogue on how to manage labour, on how to manage decision-making." As a result, the open source community is really a series of fiefdoms, with benevolent dictators and a series of camps.

Participants in the World Social Forum are having a major debate about the advantages and disadvantages of open organizing, with critics saying that it is time the WSF moves away from such openness into action.

Diversity of tactics is a great idea when it comes to valuing different skills and strengths, but it can be highly problematic. When the Black Bloc in Quebec City decided that throwing stones was a good tactic to delay the police’s assault on the crowd, their actions may have greatly aggravated the tear gas retaliation from the police, which lasted two days. There was no discussion about the wisdom of this tactic. Protesters were given the choice to enter a "green zone," in which violence was less likely, but when things heated up, the police didn’t respect any of the zones created by the organizers.

Consequently, the event was depicted in the media as a violent demonstration. The reality is that most of the aggression came from the police, but one or two photos of masked stone-throwing protesters was enough for the state and the media to blame the mostly peaceful demonstrators for the violence. Over time, in informal discussions, the movement concluded that such tactics were no longer acceptable, and they largely stopped, especially after a protester was killed in Genoa. But in a network, and especially across networks, there is no clear method of resolving differences except to walk away. Some of the work being done on dialogue and consensus can help to solve these problems, as long as it is acknowledged that the problems exist.

The challenge is to figure out how the networked politics approach can impact on the hierarchical institutions that have most of the power in our society. Open source shows that on the economic and creative level, networks have as good or better outcomes than hierarchy. Obama shows that introducing even an element of networked politics into a highly structured political system can vastly increase people’s participation and the campaign’s creativity.

Recognizing the weaknesses of networked politics does not in any way take away from its considerable strengths. It is the network with roots in the ground, on which any lasting transformation of power will take place.

Excerpted by permission of Penguin Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....