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A political assessment of the (post-) 2011 horizontal movements

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th January 2015


after 2011 horizontality must be criticized and overcome, clearly and unambiguously — and not just in a Hegelian sense. Secondly, the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power. We have understood the question of power for too long in an excessively negative manner. Now we can reinterpret the question of power in terms of multitudes, in terms of absolute democracy — that is to say, in terms of a democracy that goes beyond canonical institutional forms such as monarchy, aristocracy and “democracy.” I believe that today the problem of democracy is best formulated and addressed in terms of the multitude

The ROAR magazine interview of Toni Negri was taken by Lorenzo Cini and Jerome Roos, with special thanks to Tommaso Giordani for the translation.

Excerpts:

* In recent years, there appears to be somewhat of a convergence between your approach and Harvey’s. What do you consider to be the most important overlaps in your work? And what do you see as the main differences or tensions?

It seems to me that there is a very clear and explicit convergence between Harvey’s positions and those of my own current of thought, most clearly on the contemporary transformation of productive labor, of living labor — that is, of labor capable of generating surplus value. If I may use Marx’s language from The Fragment on Machines, I would say that there is substantial common ground between Harvey’s work and my own in the analysis of the transformation of the forms of value, that is to say, in the step from value as connected to the structures of large-scale industry to the current situation, in which society is wholly subjected to the logic of capital — not only in the productive sphere, but also with regards to reproduction and circulation.

Italian workerism [operaismo] already developed such an analysis in the late 1970s, suggesting, at the time, new forms of struggle that would deploy themselves within the larger social sphere, because we had understood that the social had become a locus of value production. Already in those years, we identified the crucial shift in the locus of surplus production: a shift away from the factory and towards the wider metropolis. And this same shift appears to me to have become central to Harvey’s work. This is the essential point: from here, both the question of surplus extraction and the question of the transformation of profit into rent have become central in the critical analyses of contemporary capitalism that Harvey and I have developed.

What, then, are the differences? I believe it’s simply a question of genealogy, of the theoretical trajectory that has brought us to this shared analysis. I have reached these conclusions starting from the analysis of the transformation of the nature of labor, which is, in fact, the concept on which the entire workerist approach was based. In other words, I began from the workerist concept of the refusal of labor. With this idea, we meant two things. On the one hand, we took it as a rejection of the law of value as the fundamental norm of the capitalist order. On the other hand, we interpreted it in a more constructive way, as a call for the acknowledgment of new forms of productivity of work beyond the factory, at a wider social level. From this Marxian analysis of the internal transformation of labor, we arrived at the same conclusions at which Harvey arrived — and on which he developed a more thorough empirical analysis.

* Starting from what you just said about the concept of productive labor, we would like to reflect with you on the forms and content of contemporary struggles. In your book Commonwealth, co-authored with Michael Hardt, you have written that today the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was once to the working class. In light of this change of paradigm, does it seem accurate to you to identify in the recent uprisings that have erupted in countries like Brazil and Turkey a set of struggles linked to questions about the production and reproduction of metropolitan life, instances of a new class struggle conducted at the metropolitan level?

Yes, very much so. Both the Turkish and the Brazilian struggles are clearly biopolitical struggles. How, then, can we link this biopolitical dimension to the new forms of labor we discussed before? This is a question with which Michael Hardt and I have been dealing ever since 1995, when we began working on Empire. It appeared to us that if labor becomes social labor, if production and capitalist oppression were swallowing up the social sphere, then the question of bios became an essential one. The set of struggles developing around the welfare state was becoming one of the central aspects of class struggle. This discovery became even more important once we understood that productive labor was not only (or even mainly) a material activity, but also (and mostly) an immaterial one. That is, an activity linked to caring, affection, communication, and what we can loosely call ‘generically human’ processes and activities.

It was this attention to the ‘generically human’ that helped us understand how the productive process had become fundamentally a biopolitical process. Consequently, the more politically significant struggles became those that deployed themselves on the biopolitical terrain. What did this mean in more concrete terms? We did not have an exhaustive and final answer. Yes, we had some intuition that one had to fight against, for example, the privatization of healthcare and education, but at the time we did not manage to fully grasp what was later revealed to us by the formidable struggles of 2011. It was those struggles that revealed the full articulation of the biopolitical discourse, that is, the new character of contemporary struggles. And it becomes very clear that the metropolis is its essential setting. This does not mean that it will always be so, but today it is certain that the metropolis is the crucial locus of this struggle.

The metropolitan strike in Paris in 1995 was essential in making me understand this. A city as complex and articulated as Paris completely supported the struggle, which blocked the city in its entirety, starting from transportation. That struggle expressed in a paradigmatic sense the cooperative and affective elements of the forms of conflict and knowledge that were emerging on the metropolitan stage in those years. It is not a coincidence that these aspects, linked to cooperation and to affective production, are still central in contemporary metropolitan struggles, which are fully biopolitical struggles.

* The cycle of struggles that began in 2011 briefly hinted at the possible birth of a new constituent process. Today it seems that many of these movements are confronted with what you and Michael Hardt have called a ‘thermidorian closure,’ bringing about the re-establishment of the old regime. What is your analysis of the current state of these struggles, and what could have been done differently to prevent the present outcome?

To start with, we need to establish some differences. The Spanish mobilization, for example, has a force and a degree of political originality that is still evident today, and constitutes an important phenomenon that must also be seen as partly emerging from the tormented history of Spain in the twentieth century, from the civil war, through the incomplete democratic transition, to the failure of the Socialist Party.

On the other hand, there is a much more ambiguous phenomenon such as Occupy, which appears to be a mobilization of the so-called middle classes more than an expression of the cognitive working class. And yet, beyond these obvious weaknesses, even Occupy displayed an important degree of originality, especially in terms of the struggle developed on the issue of debt and financial capital.

* Let’s discuss the struggles in Europe today. Taking our cue from an article you wrote together with Sandro Mezzadra just before the European elections of 2014, and a follow-up piece you just published ahead of the Greek elections, we wanted to ask you whether you see the European dimension as the only one in which the movements can possibly act to advance a project of the common as a genuine alternative to the present capitalist crisis.

This is certainly the most timely and important political question today. Currently, in Europe, we are in the lowest phase of the cycle of struggles. I do not believe in the theory that, the worse the political, social and economic situation, the stronger the revolutionary movement. We are faced with a serious economic crisis that has had extremely negative consequences. The capitalist establishment has, for the moment, successfully exploited the regression and the domestication of existing struggles, and has managed with ease to control the post-Fordist productive transformation that hailed the defeat of the Fordist mass worker. Today, we are experiencing the consequences of our defeat in the 1970s, in the absence of a political organization capable of expressing the interests of the contemporary workforce and, more generally, of the contemporary productive society that emerged from that process of capitalist transformation.

However, in this negative situation, we still have to carefully consider if and how capital will be able to overcome the crisis. For example, I tend to agree with Wolfgang Streeck’s analyses, which examine the current crisis in the light of some 1970s literature such as that by Offe, Hirsche, and O’Connor, who saw the crisis of the times as a consequence of the falling rate of profit. This fall, however, is intimately linked to the devaluation of the workforce, to the incapacity of considering the workforce as a central player in development.

It is necessary to be very careful on a number of points. When one says that some instances of the common, certain demands of the struggle for the common can be, and have been, reabsorbed by and into the “management crisis” and into all those mechanisms of management of the common, one often ignores that this absorption into capitalist management is not a creative one. It is not, for example, akin to the assimilation of the working class that occurred in the Fordist and Keynesian paradigm, when this absorption did generate a rise in demand and manifested itself in a strong and energetic economy.

Today, we are faced by a capitalist contraction that leaves even those who operate the contraction breathless. In this context, we have to be extremely attentive, because the very real risk is that of giving a completely pessimistic reading to a situation that, of course, is characterized by an important crisis — but whose outcome is still completely open.

* With this last question we would like to reflect with you on the innovation represented by a number of political phenomena that are occurring in some European countries at the moment. Do you see, in Europe today, a political organization capable of starting a constituent process and creating a transnational political project based on the communism of the 21st century — that is, a political project based on the practice of the common? And what do you consider to be the significance, in this light, of new political forces like Syriza and Podemos?

Before answering your question, I must confess that I have developed a problem in recent years. If I am asked to assess the struggles of 2011, I can’t help but concentrate my critical remarks on the question of horizontality — or of exclusive horizontality, at least. I have to criticize it because I think that there is no project or political development capable of transforming horizontal spontaneity into an institutional reality. I think, instead, that this passage must be governed in some way or another. Governed from below, of course, on the basis of shared programs, but always bearing in mind the necessity of having, in this passage, an organized political force capable of constituting itself and of managing this transformation.

I think that the present state of the movement forces us to be self-critical about what happened in 2011, and I think this self-criticism must focus on the question of political organization. We need to acknowledge, for example, that the Lista Tsipras experiment in Italy has been a tragic failure, even if I, together with Sandro Mezzadra and other comrades, welcomed it with faith and hope. However, on the other hand, it should have been clear, from the beginning, that with organized parties such as SEL or Rifondazione Comunista it would have been impossible to find political forms capable of channeling and allowing spontaneous forces from below to affirm themselves.

With Podemos, however, we are probably dealing with something different. Beyond the questionable ideologies around which Podemos constituted itself, I believe that — maybe because of the goodwill of its leaders, or perhaps thanks to the situation in which it finds itself — Podemos is infinitely more powerful than it is organized. It is producing, for the moment, an extremely interesting and active movement that might be capable of contributing to a healthy institutionalization of the struggles.

On this question of struggle at the institutional level and of political organization, I would like to conclude with two more general propositions. The first one is that after 2011 horizontality must be criticized and overcome, clearly and unambiguously — and not just in a Hegelian sense. Secondly, the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power. We have understood the question of power for too long in an excessively negative manner. Now we can reinterpret the question of power in terms of multitudes, in terms of absolute democracy — that is to say, in terms of a democracy that goes beyond canonical institutional forms such as monarchy, aristocracy and “democracy.” I believe that today the problem of democracy is best formulated and addressed in terms of the multitude.”

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Global Civil Society launches the Internet Social Forum

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Kevin Flanagan
22nd January 2015


Occupy London crowd

A Call To Occupy The Internet

PRESS RELEASE. Geneva, Switzerland, 22st January, 2015.

A group of civil society organisations from around the world has announced the Internet Social Forum, to bring together and articulate bottom-up perspectives on the ‘Internet we want’ and the ‘Web we want’.

Taking inspiration from the World Social Forum, and its clarion call, ‘Another World is possible’, the group seeks to draw urgent attention to the increasing centralization of the Internet for extraction of monopoly rents and for socio-political control, asserting that ‘Another Internet is possible’!

The Internet Social Forum will inter alia offer an alternative to the World Economic Forum’s ‘Net Mundial Initiative’. While the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the ‘Net Mundial Initiative’ convene global elites, the Internet Social Forum will be a participatory and bottom-up space for all those who believe that the global Internet must evolve in the public interest; a direct parallel to the launch of the World Social Forum in 2001 as an counter initiative to the WEF.

The Internet Social Forum will reach out to grassroots groups and social movements across the world, catalysing a groundswell that challenges the entrenched elite interests currently controlling how the Internet is managed. The Internet Social Forum’s preparatory process will kick off during the World Social Forum to take place in Tunis, March 24th to 28th, 2015. The Internet Social Forum itself is planned to be held either late 2015 or early 2016.

“While the world’s biggest companies have every right to debate the future of the Internet, we are concerned that their perspectives should not drown out those of ordinary Internet users who have no access to the privileged terrain WEF occupies – in the end it is this wider public interest that must be paramount in governing the Internet. We are organising the Internet Social Forum to make sure their voices can’t be ignored in the corridors of power,” said Norbert Bollow, Co-Coordinator of the Just Net Coalition, which is one of the groups involved in the initiative.

The Internet Social Forum, and its preparatory process, is intended as a space to build the ‘Internet we want’ and the ‘Web we want’. It will be underpinned by values of democracy, human rights and social justice. It will stand for participatory policy making and promote community media. It will seek an Internet that is decentralized in its architecture and based on people’s unfettered rights to data, information, knowledge and other ‘commons’ that the Internet has enabled the world community to generate and share.

Consistent with Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a ‘Magna Carta for the Internet’, the Internet Social Forum proposes to develop a People’s Internet Manifesto, through a bottom-up process involving all concerned social groups and movements, in different areas, from techies and ICT-for-development actors to media reform groups, democracy movements and social justice activists.

This year will also see the 10 year high-level review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held in New York in December. As a full-scale review of a major UN summit, this will be a critical global political event. Since the WSIS, in the early part of the millennium, the Internet, and what it means socially, has undergone a paradigm shift. The WSIS witnessed active engagement of civil society and technical groups as well as of business. However, currently, there is a risk that this UN-led initiative on governance issues of the information society and Internet will be sidelined in favour of private, big-business-dominated initiatives like the WEF’s Net Mundial Initiative. The Internet Social Forum, while remaining primarily a people’s forum, will also seek to channel global civil society’s engagement towards the WSIS +10 review.

The following organisations form the initial group that is proposing the Internet Social Forum, and many more are expected to join in the immediate future. This is an open call to progressive groups from all over the world to join this initiative, and participate in developing a People’s Internet Manifesto.

Just Net Coalition, Global

P2P Foundation, Global

Transnational Institute, Global

Forum on Communication for Integration of our America, Regional (Latin America)

Arab NGO Network for Development, Regional

Agencia Latinoamericana de Información, Regional

Alternative Informatics Association, Turkey

Knowledge Commons, India

Open-Root/EUROLINC, France

SLFC.in, India

CODE-IP Trust, Kenya

GodlyGlobal.org, Switzerland

Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, Canada

IT for Change, India

Association for Proper Internet Governance, Switzerland

Computer Professionals Union, Philippines

Free Press, USA

Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, Philippines

Other News, Italy

Free Software Movement of India

Global_Geneva, Switzerland

Solidarius (Solidarity Economy Network), Italy

All India Peoples Science Network, India

Institute for Local Self-Reliance – Community Broadband Networks, USA

Please contact us at secretariat@InternetSocialForum.net for further information or clarification.

Or the following regional contacts:

Europe Norbert Bollow Email: NorbertB@InternetSocialForum.net

Asia Rishab Bailey Email: RishabB@InternetSocialForum.net

Africa Alex Gakaru Email: AlexG@InternetSocialForum.net

North America Micheal Gurstein Email: MichealG@InternetSocialForum.net

South America Sally Burch Email: SallyB@InternetSocialForum.net

 

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Irresistibly biased? The blind spots of social innovation

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Kevin Flanagan
19th January 2015


Article by Remko Berkhout - https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/remko-berkhout/irresistibly-biased-blind-spots-of-social-innovation

What’s the state of play in the fast paced world of social innovation? The Unusual Suspects Festival in London seemed a good place to find out. Collaboration was the theme. The claims made were high. The stakes may be even higher. A dazzling line up of initiatives were on display, backed up by discussions and debates on everything from the future of public services to the role of the arts in social change to the game-changing potential of social entrepreneurs.

Social innovation has an irresistible global appeal. Who wouldn’t be persuaded by the challenge of mobilizing all our skills, energies and creativity to solve the world’s toughest problems? Students are increasingly pursuing social innovation as a career path. The UK government is championing it as a key strategy in the ‘Big Society.’ Initiatives like Shared Lives Plus  in healthcare, Code Club in education, and the return of community organizing at Locality were among hundreds of exciting examples showcased at the Festival.

Thanks to the work of the Social Innovation Exchange, the impact of such projects travels to places as far apart as South Korea and Argentina, where innovators are working on similar grand challenges. Innovation is also fast becoming the mainstream in the international development community, with leading donor agencies like Britain’s Department for International Development, USAID and the Omidyar Network throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at innovations linked to poverty, humanitarian disasters and government transparency.

But perhaps this buzz disguises some important biases that undermine the power of social innovation, at least if it aims to transform the systems and structures that perpetuate poverty and inequality.  I came away from the Festival with four of these biases swirling around my brain: a bias towards co-optation instead of genuine collaboration; ‘bigger is always better;’ ‘solving problems’ is more urgent than building the capacity to find solutions; and a serial avoidance of politics.

Read the Full Article – https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/remko-berkhout/irresistibly-biased-blind-spots-of-social-innovation

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Book of the Day: Social Movements in the Internet Age

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hartsellml
18th January 2015


Book: Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. by Manuel Castells. Polity, 2012

 

Description

“This book is an exploration of the new forms of social movements and protests that are erupting in the world today, from the Arab uprisings to the indignadas movement in Spain, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. While these and similar social movements differ in many important ways, there is one thing they share in common: they are all interwoven inextricably with the creation of autonomous communication networks supported by the Internet and wireless communication.

In this timely and important book, Manuel Castells – the leading scholar of our contemporary networked society – examines the social, cultural and political roots of these new social movements, studies their innovative forms of self-organization, assesses the precise role of technology in the dynamics of the movements, suggests the reasons for the support they have found in large segments of society, and probes their capacity to induce political change by influencing people’s minds.

Based on original fieldwork by the author and his collaborators as well as secondary sources, this book provides a path-breaking analysis of the new forms of social movements, and offers an analytical template for advancing the debates triggered by them concerning the new forms of social change and political democracy in the global network society.”

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Book of the Day: History of the Struggle Against Power Inequalities

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hartsellml
16th January 2015


Book: Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle. Henry Tam.

URL = kindle

“‘Against Power Inequalities’ provides a historical guide to the contest for power redistribution through the centuries, and draws out the underlying obstacles to the development of more inclusive communities.”

 

Description

What’s the book about:

“From the time of ancient tyrannies to the prevailing global plutocracy, the widening gap between the powerful and the rest has fuelled the spread of dogmas, imposed oppressive practices, and denied people a chance to shape the decisions that affect their lives.

Against Power Inequalities aims to raise understanding of the impact of unequal power relations and the struggle for more inclusive communities. It provides a historical guide to the contest for power redistribution across the centuries, and draws out the underlying causes of disempowerment which are still with us today.

It will be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about how progressive thinkers and activists have joined forces in reversing the concentration of power in those with wealth, arbitrary authority, or status conferred by outmoded customs; and what obstacles had to be overcome to bring about a fairer and more cooperative society.”

 

A selection of short reviews

“Henry Tam has written a book that is breath-taking in its panoramic overview of the genealogy of power inequalities and the struggles against them. But this book is much more than a compelling history of power inequalities and their contestation. In its forensic, but always optimistic, analysis of how citizens have worked in the past, and continue to work, towards a fairer, more just society, we have an inspirational example of a text that speaks truth to power.”

– D Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge, UK

“In t his thought-provoking book Henry Tam demonstrates that in times in which populist movements try to pit the people against the bearers of democratic institutions, we need to reconsider the relation between democratic decision-making and community life. Beyond the formal constitutional and legal requirements, decision-makers should engage civil society in determining collective action without the distortions of inequalities in economic, social and public life. Alongside social democrats and liberal reformers, Christian democrats who are interested both in the history and in the future of their ideals, will derive inspiration from this work of a truly independent scholar.”

– E M H Hirsch Ballin, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Tilburg, The Netherlands
“Tam’s book is an intellectual tour de force, an erudite romp through the history of civilization that highlights the origins of power and the never-ending effort to democratize hierarchical systems through mobilized participatory communities. It bears reading and re-reading, because the issues of power and community are so fundamental, and the history so rich and evocative. One might call it, if Howard Zinn would permit, A People’s History of the World.”

– C Derber, author of Greed to Green, and Corporation Nation; Professor of Sociology, Boston College, USA

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Social mobilization vs. the power of disruption

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Michel Bauwens
8th January 2015


Interesting debates on what makes social movements successful: their capacity to mobilize resources vs. the power to disrupt.

Excerpted from Mark Engler and Paul Engler:

“Today social movement theory is a well-established area of focus within sociology and political science. In the 1970s, however, it was just barely gaining a foothold in the academy. Stanford professor Doug McAdam tells the story of how, as a student activist in the late 1960s, he sought out classes on social movements at his university, searching the catalogue of the political science department. None were listed. When he finally did find discussion of movement activism, it took place in a very different setting than he had expected: namely, in a course on Abnormal Psychology.

At the time, McAdam writes, “movement participation was seen not as a form of rational political behavior but a reflection of aberrant personality types and irrational forms of ‘crowd behavior.’” Post-World War II theorists, adherents of the “pluralist” and “collective behavior” schools, believed that the U.S. political system was at least reasonably responsive to all groups with grievances to voice. Thus, any sensible person could advance their interests through the “proper channels” of representative politics. Most influential academics, McAdam explains, regarded outside movements as “typically unnecessary and generally ineffective;” when protests did appear, they represented “dysfunctional responses to the breakdown of social order.” As Piven and Cloward put it in a 1991 essay, movements were seen “as mindless eruptions lacking either coherence or continuity with organized social life.”

In the 1970s, this view began losing its hold. Graduate schools became infused with a generation of New Left scholars who had direct ties to civil rights, antiwar and women’s liberation movements. Coming from a more sympathetic standpoint, they sought to explain social movements as rational forms of collective action. Protests would now be seen as politics by other means for people who had been shut out of the system. A leading strain of thought that emerged in this milieu was known as resource mobilization theory.
Scholars in the resource mobilization school put social movement organizations at the center of their understanding of how protest groups affect change. As McAdam and W. Richard Scott write, resource mobilization theorists “stressed that movements, if they are to be sustained for any length of time, require some form of organization: leadership, administrative structure, incentives for participation, and a means for acquiring resources and support.” This view synced with the experience of organizers outside the university. In many respects, resource mobilization served as an academic analog to Alinsky’s vision of building power through the steady, persistent creation of community organization. It was also consistent with the structure-based organizing of the labor movement.

With their newly established approach, resource mobilization scholars produced compelling research, for example, into how Southern churches provided a vital infrastructure for the civil rights movement. Their viewpoint gradually gained ground. By the early 1980s, “resource mobilization had become a dominant background paradigm for sociologists studying social movements,” writes political scientist Sidney Tarrow. Although other theories have since come into favor, McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet argue that the biases and emphases of resource mobilization still guide “the lion’s share of work in the field.”

* * *

When Piven and Cloward published Poor People’s Movements in 1977, its ideas about disruptive power — which were not rooted in formal social movement organizations — represented a direct challenge to leading strains of academic theory. More than that, they also clashed with much of the actual organizing taking place in the country. As the authors wrote in an introduction to their 1979 paperback edition, the book’s “critique of organizational efforts offended central tenets of left doctrine.”

Piven and Cloward mounted their heterodox assault by means of four detailed case studies. These involved some of the more significant protest movements in 20th century America: the movement of unemployed workers early in the Great Depression, the industrial strikes that gave rise to the CIO later in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 60s, and the activism of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and 70s. As Piven would later summarize their conclusions, the experience of these revolts “showed that poor people could achieve little through the routines of conventional electoral and interest group politics.” Therefore, what was left to them as their key tool “was what we called disruption, the breakdowns that resulted when people defied the rules and institutional routines that ordinarily governed life.”

A structure-based organizer such as Saul Alinsky would not disagree with the idea of using boisterous action to make a stink. After all, he was a great showman and tactician of disorderly troublemaking. But Alinsky would have sharply parted ways with Piven and Cloward on the need for organization to support change. Poor People’s Movements irked both resource mobilization theorists and on-the-ground activists by contending that not only did formal structures fail to produce disruptive outbreaks, but that these structures actually detracted from mass protest when it did occur.

Piven and Cloward’s case studies offered a take on past movements that was very different than standard accounts. Of the labor activism that exploded during the Great Depression, they write that, contrary to the most cherished beliefs of union organizers, “For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them.” Their studies showed that “with virtually no exceptions, the union leaders worked to limit strikes, not to escalate them.” Likewise, in the civil rights movement, “defiant blacks forced concessions as a result of the disruptive effects of mass civil disobedience” — not through formal organization.

Piven and Cloward acknowledged that such conclusions failed “to conform to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies and demands.” Nevertheless, they wrote, no doubt aware they were picking a fight, that “popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else’s rules or hopes; it has its own logic and direction.”

Poor People’s Movements offered a variety of reasons why, when people were roused to indignation and moved to defy authority, “Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize.” Most centrally, the organizers in their case studies opted against escalating the mass protests “because they [were] preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations [would] enlarge and become powerful.”

Across the four different movements that Piven and Cloward examined, organizers showed similar instincts — and these instincts betrayed them. The organizers viewed formal structures as essential, seeing them as necessary for marshaling collective resources, enabling strategic decision-making and ensuring institutional continuity. But what the organizers did not appreciate was that, while bureaucratic institutions may have positives, they also bring constraints. Because organizations have to worry about self-preservation, they become adverse to risk-taking. Because they enjoy some access to formal avenues of power, they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish from inside the system. As a result, they forget the disruptive energy that propelled them to power to begin with, and so they often end up playing a counter-productive role. As Piven says of the labor movement, “Mass strikes lead to unions. But unions are not the big generators of mass strikes.”

Poor People’s Movements also made an argument about the pace of change, challenging the idea that gains for the poor were won through steady, incremental effort. Piven and Cloward emphasized that, whatever course of action they take, the ability of organizers to shape history is limited. Adopting a type of neo-Marxist structuralism common in the period — one that looked to find economic and political causes underlying social phenomena — they argued that popular uprising “flows from historically specific circumstances.” The routines of daily life, the habits of obedience people develop, and the threat of reprisals against those who act out all function to keep disruptive potentials in check most of the time.

Periods when the poor do become defiant are exceptional, but they also have a defining impact. Piven and Cloward saw history as being punctuated by disruptive outbreaks. Instead of change occurring gradually, they believed, it came in bursts — through “Big Bang” moments, as Piven calls them in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority. Such a period can erupt quickly, but then fade just as rapidly. While its reverberations within the political system have lasting significance, “insurgency is always short-lived,” Piven and Cloward explain. “Once it subsides and the people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up… simply fade away.”

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On the tension between prefigurative and strategic politics

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Michel Bauwens
6th January 2015


The original article contains many interesting references to the lessons from the struggles of the 1960’s in the U.S.

Excerpted from Mark Engler and Paul Engler:

“It is an old question in social movements: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing institutions, or should we model in our own lives a different set of political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society?

Over the past 50 years — and arguably going back much further — social movements in the United States have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times with significant tension between different groups of activists.
In the recent past, a clash between “strategic” and “prefigurative” politics could be seen in the Occupy movement. While some participants pushed for concrete political reforms — greater regulation of Wall Street, bans on corporate money in politics, a tax on millionaires, or elimination of debt for students and underwater homeowners — other occupiers focused on the encampments themselves. They saw the liberated spaces in Zuccotti Park and beyond — with their open general assemblies and communities of mutual support — as the movement’s most important contribution to social change. These spaces, they believed, had the power foreshadow, or “prefigure,” a more radical and participatory democracy.

Once an obscure term, prefigurative politics is increasingly gaining currency, with many contemporary anarchists embracing as a core tenet the idea that, as a slogan from the Industrial Workers of the World put it, we must “build the new world in the shell of the old.” Because of this, it is useful to understand its history and dynamics. While prefigurative politics has much to offer social movements, it also contains pitfalls. If the project of building alternative community totally eclipses attempts to communicate with the wider public and win broad support, it risks becoming a very limiting type of self-isolation.

For those who wish to both live their values and impact the world as it now exists, the question is: How can we use the desire to “be the change” in the service of strategic action?

Coined by political theorist Carl Boggs and popularized by sociologist Wini Breines, the term “prefigurative politics” emerged out of analysis of New Left movements in the United States. Rejecting both the Leninist cadre organization of the Old Left and conventional political parties, members of the New Left attempted to create activist communities that embodied the concept of participatory democracy, an idea famously championed in the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. In a 1980 essay, Breines argues that the central imperative of prefigurative politics was to “create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that ‘prefigured’ and embodied the desired society.” Instead of waiting for revolution in the future, the New Left sought to experience it in the present through the movements it created.

Current discussion of prefigurative politics has been rooted in the experience of U.S. movements in the 1960s. However, the tension between waging campaigns to produce instrumental gains within the existing political system, on the one hand, and creating alternative institutions and communities that more immediately put radical values into practice, on the other, has existed for centuries. Unfortunately, there is no universal agreement on the vocabulary used to describe this split. Various academic and political traditions discuss the two differing approaches using overlapping concepts including “cultural revolution,” “dual power,” and theories of “collective identity.” Max Weber distinguished between the “ethic of ultimate ends” (which roots action in heartfelt and principled conviction) and an “ethic of responsibility” (which more pragmatically considers how action impacts the world). Most controversially, some scholars have discussed aspects of prefigurative action as forms of “lifestyle politics.”

Used as an umbrella category, the term prefigurative politics is useful in highlighting a divide that has appeared in countless social movements throughout the world. In the 1800s, Marx debated utopian socialists about the need for revolutionary strategy that went beyond the formation of communes and model societies. Throughout his life, Gandhi wavered back and forth between leading campaigns of civil disobedience to exact concessions from state powers and advocating for a distinctive vision of self-reliant village life, through which he believed Indians could experience true independence and communal unity. (Gandhi’s successors split on this issue, with Jawaharlal Nehru pursing the strategic control of state power and Vinoba Bhave taking up the prefigurative “constructive program.”) Advocates of strategic nonviolence, who push for the calculated use of unarmed uprising, have counter-posed their efforts against long-standing lineages of “principled nonviolence” — represented by religious organizations that espouse a lifestyle of pacifism (such as the Mennonites) or groups that undertake symbolic acts of “bearing moral witness” (such as the Catholic Workers).

With regard to the 1960s, Breines notes that the form of prefigurative politics that emerged in the New Left was “hostile to bureaucracy, hierarchy and leadership, and it took form as a revulsion against large-scale centralized and inhuman institutions.” Perhaps even more than advancing traditional political demands, the prefigurative concept of social change was about prompting a cultural shift.

Indeed, those who embraced a most extreme version of prefigurative practice in that period did not identify with the social movement “politicos” who organized rallies against the Vietnam War and were interested in directly challenging the system. Instead, they saw themselves as part of a youth counter-culture that was undermining establishment values and providing a vigorous, living example of an alternative.

Tension between prefigurative and strategic politics persists today for a simple reason: Although they are not always mutually exclusive, the two approaches have very distinct emphases and present sometimes contradictory notions of how activists should behave at any a given time.

Where strategic politics favors the creation of organizations that can marshal collective resources and gain influence in conventional politics, prefigurative groups lean toward the creation of liberated public spaces, community centers and alternative institutions — such as squats, co-ops and radical bookstores. Both strategic and prefigurative strategies may involve direct action or civil disobedience. However, they approach such protest differently. Strategic practitioners tend to be very concerned with media strategy and how their demonstrations will be perceived by the wider public; they design their actions to sway public opinion. In contrast, prefigurative activists are often indifferent, or even antagonistic, to the attitudes of the media and of mainstream society. They tend to emphasize the expressive qualities of protest — how actions express the values and beliefs of participants, rather than how they might impact a target.

Strategic politics seeks to build pragmatic coalitions as a way of more effectively pushing forward demands around a given issue. During the course of a campaign, grassroots activists might reach out to more established unions, non-profit organizations or politicians in order to make common cause. Prefigurative politics, however, is far more wary of joining forces with those coming from outside the distinctive culture a movement has created, especially if prospective allies are part of hierarchical organizations or have ties with established political parties.

Countercultural clothing and distinctive appearance — whether it involves long hair, piercings, punk stylings, thrift-store clothing, keffiyehs or any number of other variations — helps prefigurative communities create a sense of group cohesion. It reinforces the idea of an alternative culture that rejects conventional norms. Yet strategic politics looks at the issue of personal appearance very differently. Saul Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, takes the strategic position when he argues, “If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair.” Some of the politicos of the New Left did just that in 1968, when Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the Democratic presidential primary as an anti-war challenger to Lyndon Johnson. Opting to “Get Clean for Gene,” they shaved beards, cut hair and sometimes donned suits in order to help the campaign reach out to middle-of-the-road voters.

* Taking stock of prefiguration

For those who wish to integrate strategic and prefigurative approaches to social change, the task is to appreciate the strengths of prefigurative communities while avoiding their weaknesses.

The impulse to “be the change we wish to see” has a strong moral appeal, and the strengths of prefigurative action are significant. Alternative communities developed “within the shell of the old” create spaces that can support radicals who chose to live outside the norms of workaday society and to make deep commitments to a cause. When they do take part in wider campaigns to change the political and economic system, these individuals can serve as a dedicated core of participants for a movement. In the case of Occupy, those most invested in prefigurative community were the people who kept the encampments running. Even if they were not those most involved in planning strategic demonstrations that brought in new allies and drew larger crowds; they played a pivotal role.
Another strength of prefigurative politics is that it is attentive to the social and emotional needs of participants. It provides processes for individuals’ voices to be heard and creates networks of mutual support to sustain people in the here and now.

Strategic politics often downplays these considerations, putting aside care for activists in order to focus on winning instrumental goals that will result in future improvements for society. Groups that incorporate prefigurative elements in their organizing, and thus have a greater focus on group process, have often been superior at intensive consciousness-raising, as well as at addressing issues such as sexism and racism within movements themselves.

But what works well for small groups can sometimes become a liability when a movement tries to scale up and gain mass support. Jo Freeman’s landmark essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” makes this point in the context of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Freeman argued that a prefigurative rejection of formal leadership and rigid organizational structure served second-wave feminists well early on when the movement “defined its main goal, and its main method, as consciousness-raising.” However, she contends, when the movement aspired to go beyond meetings that raised awareness of common oppression and began to undertake broader political activity, the same anti-organizational predisposition became limiting. The consequence of structurelessness, Freeman argues, was a tendency for the movement to generate “much motion and few results.”

Perhaps the greatest danger inherent in prefigurative groups is a tendency toward self-isolation. Writer, organizer and Occupy activist Jonathan Matthew Smucker describes what he calls the “political identity paradox,” a contradiction that afflicts groups based on a strong sense of alternative community. “Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle,” Smucker writes. “Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.”
Those focused on prefiguring a new society in their movements — and preoccupied with meeting the needs of an alternative community — can become cut off from the goal of building bridges to other constituencies and winning public support. Instead of looking for ways to effectively communicate their vision to the outside world, they are prone to adopt slogans and tactics that appeal to hardcore activists but alienate the majority. Moreover, they grow ever more averse to entering into popular coalitions. (The extreme fear of “co-optation” among some Occupiers was indicative of this tendency.) All these things become self-defeating. As Smucker writes, “Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals”.”

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Alternatiba and Blockadia: the twin pillars of translocal eco-territorial struggles

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th January 2015


“From our point of view, although these two processes have distinctly different points of departure; they open up spaces that both enlarge and radicalise the citizens’ dynamics for climate justice. They enlarge it because they are grounded respectively in the opposition to the devastating project that is affecting our daily lives, and the development of experiences that improve them and provide us with a glimpse of tomorrow’s world. These two processes therefore make it possible to include fringes of the population that would otherwise not become involved in the classical activist spheres.”

In my own theorizing of the proposed strategies of the commons movement, I have always insisted on combining two aspects, the struggles of social movements for resistance and change, AND the concrete reconstruction of prefigurative practices, the creation of the new society within the old. This is of course what the labor movement did in the 19th century and not so innovative, but it has been lost in many 20th century movements.

But in this dispatch from the climate justice movements, by Maxime Combes of Attac France, it turns out to be the proposed strategy of that movement for 2015.

What is needed is to link the survival struggle of humnanity against climate disruption, to a broader view of a phase transition to a commons-centric society, as we propose and explain in the Commons Transition Plan (commonstransition.org), i.e. to apply the twin strategy proposed by Maxime Combes, to the construction of the post-capitalist commons society. At least, that is my proposition .

Excerpted from Maxime Combes:

“The evaluation carried out by the Climate Justice Action and Climate Justice Now! already identified that the construction of a global climate justice movement should not depend on the agenda of the global summits: after the success of the non-violent civil disobedience action Reclaim Power on 16th December 2009, there was commitment to decentralise and disseminate the organisation of peoples’ assemblies at local and regional levels.The aim is to fight projects that damage climate and implement direct solutions through translocal forms of solidarity – solidarity between struggles or alternatives that are anchored in local initiatives – as a vector of the construction of a global movement. This is a huge challenge and is ever-present: how can we relocalise and anchor our imagination and mobilisation in the experience and concrete realities,including of our daily lives, in a perspective of rediscovering the power of acting together? The power of these acts will be all the stronger and greater if we are able to move beyond the logic of awareness-building and citizens’ mobilisations that are undoubtedly too linked to an heuristic analysis of science and expertise; it’s not enough to be aware that climate change exists to actually take action. Although the many experts’ reports do not mechanically imply implementing measures and policies that rise to the challenge, they have not led to generalised citizens’ mobilisations either. On the contrary, they have probably led to incredulity more than to commitment to act. Two citizens’ dynamics appear to us to contribute to the process of relocalisation of struggles and imagination; they also include the perspective of a global climate justice movement, as they confront the structural causes of global warming. The first is grounded in the “frontline struggles” that aim to halt the extractive industry from expanding (from shale oil and gas to new mining projects), and the construction of new useless infrastructure that is imposed and ill-adapted (airports, motorways, dams,stadia etc). As a result of the powerful mobilisations in North America against building new pipelines for exporting tar sands oil from Alberta in Canada; this new dynamic of international mobilisation is called Blockadia. The flip side of this coin is the dynamic of innovation, development, strengthening and highlighting of concrete alternative experiences, be they local or regional or global – that all aim to effect deep change in our production models as well as the consumption patterns that have thus far proven unsustainable. By using the name coined in October 2013 in Bayonne (in the French Basque country) byBizi! And dozens of Basque, Spanish and French organisations we could, by extension call the citizens’ movement that is up and running Alternatiba; it is now taking various forms in the four corners of our planet.

These two dynamics clearly represent an eco-territorial change in social struggles, to use the term coined by the Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa to characterise the rise in struggles in Latin America that combine the language of ecologists and the practice of resistance and alternatives grounded in territories.

Territory is not understood in this sense as confetti to be saved from the damage of productivism, industrialisation or neo-liberal globalisation. On the contrary, it is a space for building resistance and alternatives; in other words the place for imagining and experimenting how toreach beyond existing, unsustainable economic, financial and technological models. Here there is no space for selfish attitudes like “not in my back yard”. Preservation, promotion and resilience of all territories make up the overall picture. To some extent, the mobilisation against shale gas in France and many other countries that are calling for “Neither here nor anywhere”, especially when they are combined with the demands for radical energy transition, are all part and parcel of the same logic.”

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How the New Era housing estate Beat A Corporation : a victory for fair housing

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st January 2015


Bravo to the New Era inhabitants and thanks to Russell Brand for his support!

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Demolition Derby

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
31st December 2014


By Vera Bradova. Original post here.

Before the book Deep Green Resistance came out and the organization of the same name formed, I was a big fan of Derrick Jensen. But not so much since. There are a variety of reasons why DGR lost me. I will mention three.

I just watched a video where DGR ally Stephanie McMillan reads a speech urging global fight against capitalism, while Derrick Jensen acts the interviewer. She makes many good pointsillustrated with her well-crafted cartoon strips. Her analysis makes a lot of sense. But when she gets to the part about “what to do,” she falls on DGR’s favorite line about “militant resistance” and on vacuous exhortations: we “must overcome the state apparatus” (and its lies, wealth and arms), we “must dismantle the system altogether and create an alternative”! On her site, she stresses (as she has for years): “Our collective strategy must be capable of smashing the entire global matrix of social relations — the economic, political, and ideological practices…” And so on. John Holloway has already very ably pointed out why this approach does not work. I really only have one more thing to say about it:

miracle_cartoon

In the book, Derrick answers a query he has received from his audience many times; “Daniel Quinn says we should walk away, what do you think?” Derrick says he’s got two problems with it; one is that there is nowhere to walk to (Arctic? middle of the ocean?) and the other is that those familiar with Quinn answer that this is supposed to be a mental state, that we are supposed to emotionally withdraw.

I have a problem with what Derrick says. Neither is true of what Daniel Quinn advocates. Quinn makes it pointedly clear that he does not mean it geographically, and he has spoken at length of what he does mean: socio-economic tribalism he calls “new tribalism, where people band together to make a living and a life.” He praises those who have been able to create such “business tribes” and hopes that even better ideas will follow. Either Derrick is shooting in the dark, or he is willfully misrepresenting Quinn’s ideas.

He follows the passage with this argument: if you know a friend is being tortured in a nearby basement, would you walk away? To which I answer, the torture of the planet is far more complex than that. What would you do, Derrick, when people and creatures were tortured in millions, billions of basements (as they indeed are, in a manner of speaking)? That is the situation we face, and that is what we need to deal with. Blowing up all those basements seems, well, not the ideal solution, shall we say? Walking away from the torture system itself and letting it collapse under its own weight may be our best option. And why interpret “walking away” as not caring, no longer doing anything for those who suffer? Quinn is our ally; trying to strawman him out of relevance is a hit below the belt.

Is this civilization redeemable, asks another person. Derrick argues that it is not. I too feel that this civilization is a lost cause, but not civilization in general. Babylon’s days are numbered, but it will try to take everyone down with it. I think that the image of global psychopaths hanging from lamp posts — as Orlov and Kunstler keep on about — is yet another soothing placebo. Things have changed since the days of the French and Russian revolutions. Nowadays, the global perps just change coats, rename things a bit, repaint the stage of the spectacle, change the props. That’s about it.

The question that occupies me is what I (we) can do to speed up the metamorphosis of this voracious caterpillar that is devouring the world into a “civilized civ” butterfly. I will write more about this when I talk about a way out of Babylon I have discovered, soonish. Meanwhile, things are bad enough; I am not interested in joining those out to vandalize the system that exists, trying to bring it down, feeding their precious energies into what they oppose, fueling yet another bitter conflict, yet another “war to end all wars.” Besides, compared to the banksters that are actively and effectively bringing the human world to the precipice, the DGR folks, they are just pikers.

If you crush the caterpillar, you destroy its chance to turn into a butterfly.

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