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Book of the Day: Collective Action After Networks

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hartsellml
29th October 2014


Organisation of the Organisation-less: Collective Action After Networks. By Rodrigo Nunes. PML Books (Mute / Post-Media Lab), 2014.

Summary:

“Rejecting the dichotomy of centralism and horizontalism that has deeply marked millennial politics, Rodrigo Nunes’ close analysis of network systems demonstrates how organising within contemporary social and political movements exists somewhere between – or beyond – the two. Rather than the party or chaos, the one or the multitude, he discovers a ‘bestiary’ of hybrid organisational forms and practices that render such disjunctives false. The resulting picture shows how social and technical networks can and do facilitate strategic action and fluid distributions of power at the same time. It is by developing the strategic potentials that are already immanent to networks, he argues, that contemporary solutions to the question of organisation can be developed.”

Excerpted from an earlier article on the same topic, ‘Three theses on organisation’, by Rodrigo Nunes:

It is Possible to Have a Mass Movement Without Mass Organisations

This lesson is not particularly new; it has been known since at least 1968, or since the late 1990s if we are to eschew the classical references. It is nonetheless both worth repeating and phrasing in this way, since attempting to translate the questions thrown up by the present into the language of older debates can offer more of a grip on them than merely insisting on their absolute novelty.

What matters here is not only the extent to which mass organisations (parties, unions – notable exceptions being the strikes in Egypt, and local support by unions in Tunisia) were seen as ‘part of the problem’, or simply not invited, but also the extent to which they were questioned as mass organisations. In the face of a large, heterogeneous, developing, living movement, their mobilising capacity seemed limited by comparison – and the quality of their representation too stale, too ossified, too much of a representation to matter. When masses of people rose up against the representative system and the dearth of real options it offered, unions and parties were widely regarded as representing that system itself, rather than those they notionally represent.

To say this, of course, does not tell us anything about the staying power of the movements that appeared in 2011; whether a choice not to form mass organisations will entail a progressive loss of momentum, or whether forming them will simply be divisive without bringing any gains; nor does it say anything about whether mass organisations as such are an outdated proposition.[ii] But it does say something about the state of existing mass organisations, and the potentials that reside in the encounter between widespread discontent and access to technological tools that allow for mass, multi-polar communication. It is, thus, evidently good news: mass organisations are in crisis everywhere (and this includes Latin America, from where I presently write); it is good to know that it is possible to bypass them in order to produce political effects.

It also says something about the crisis of representation, and how it will be a long time until it is solved. Some were quick to point out the ‘failure’ of movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, in the sense that the forces that eventually came to power were not much better than those that were removed. There is a truly bizarre logic in this: if these movements started out by decrying how all essential decisions were outside the scope of representative democracy and all the available options were different shades of the same, to expect to prove them wrong by pointing out that what they got was ultimately a different shade of the same is essentially to corroborate their assertion. This argument can only make sense if one has already accepted the premise these movements reject – that there is no alternative to the ‘there is no alternative’ that they oppose. It fails to acknowledge how they have, from the start, set their sights on a much longer game than can be measured by electoral cycles (and which will demand a lot more from them to be achieved).

In regard to the political system as a whole, these movements are exercising – and that is perhaps all they can do at present – what Colectivo Situaciones have called poder destituyente, de-instituent power.[iv] They undoubtedly also possess a constituent power whose future and direction is as yet impossible to predict. It may result in new political forms, new mechanisms of representation, new institutions or, at the very least, new organisations. It may result in all of those at once, as was the case in Bolivia in the aftermath of neoliberal crisis. But right now, their main achievable goal is probably that of flushing the system; and not only can this not be done overnight, the sharpening of contradictions in the short term – Spain now has a right wing government elected by 30 percent of the population, while polls indicate that around 70 percent agree with the indignados, who the new government are on a declared collision course with – may lead to just that in the longer run.

 

Organisation Has Not Disappeared, But Changed

Many have observed how the obvious similarities between 2011 and the alterglobalisation moment went oddly unnoticed among the commentariat. In what concerns organisation, there is a double irony in this invisibilisation. On the one hand, the alterglobalisation moment marked the first attempt to elaborate the transformations to organisational practice brought about by new communication technologies, the internet above all. On the other, it already manifested the same tabula rasa, new dawn attitude that some adopt today: new technological conditions have changed the way we organise forever, it is all about connected individuals now, the time of hierarchical organisational forms is over. Therein lies, of course, a third irony: that, as is often the case with the modern attitude of announcing the present as a total break with the past, it appears retrospectively as an anticipation of something then still to come. The ‘new technological conditions’ of ten years ago – mailing lists, camera-less phones and Indymedia! – pale in comparison to the access to the means of production of information that we see today; conversely, today’s ‘total break’ has already been around, in some form, for ten years.

The problem is that different things tend to get mixed up in the discussion, and activist practices associated with older organisational forms – such as ‘factory floor’ or ‘door-to-door’ community organising – are lumped in with the organisational form itself. As a consequence, the argument flits from claiming that some organisational forms are no longer necessary to some forms of activism have become superfluous, and ends up producing a falsified picture of how social media have actually been put to political use.

In a well received article from late 2010 that went on to seem thoroughly debunked by ensuing events, Malcolm Gladwell drew on Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking work in social network theory to suggest that social media are fabulous tools when it comes to spreading information and fostering low involvement forms of action (‘share’, ‘like’, ‘retweet’, ‘donate’), but are not as good when it comes to developing dependable relations, commitment and what it sometimes takes to really get an action or campaign off the ground. One of that text’s strongest conclusions was that ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’.[vi] In other words, social media are an excellent medium for weak tie activism, but the development of strong ties requires greater organisational consistency than ‘clicktivism’. As anyone who’s ever organised anything will know, it is sadly not as simple as ‘tweet it and they will come’.

My hypothesis is that, rather than contradicting this conclusion, the political use of social media in 2011 highlights a possibility underestimated by Gladwell: that, under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

If one pays attention to how events unfolded, the myth of isolated individuals coming together on the randomly picked date of a Facebook event becomes shaky. Even the instance seemingly closest to the ‘spontaneous uprising’ narrative, Tunisia, is arguably best described as starting with strong ties. Mohamed Bouazizi’s shocking act of self-immolation first galvanised a small circle of friends and family who tried to make sure the information about his death, and the protests that followed, got out of the town of Sidi Bouzid. From then on the story was picked up by Al Jazeera, there was support from the local trade union branch and student groups, and longer-term activists and media critics of the government began to speak (and act) out.

The movement, in other words, was not simply from weak ties to strong ties, isolated individuals to strong commitments, the internet to the streets; but (small scale) strong ties to weak ties (more people hearing about what had happened) to strong ties (activist groups and individuals becoming involved on a larger scale) to a broader fringe of weak ties becoming strong ties as things gathered momentum. This is illustrated in the geographical spread; from the countryside to Al Jazeera, then from social media and YouTube to the capital and abroad, where each relay produced not only a greater number of informed people, but also people who became active; and it is not too much to imagine that communication among individuals was taking place not only through media, social or otherwise, but also through meetings and nascent or pre-existing organisations of different kinds.

It is well known that, for years, activist groups in Egypt had had their attempts to channel mass opposition to the Mubarak regime frustrated and repressed. Then the events in Tunisia and the viral spread of information and availability of online mobilising tools provided them with an opportunity that they seized. It is true, someone did create a Facebook event calling for the January 25 ‘Day of Anger’; this someone, however, was no random ‘concerned citizen’, but the admin of a Facebook page (‘We are all Khaled Said’) with over 400,000 followers that had existed for half a year. That admin, the now famous Wael Ghonim, attributes the idea to his collaborator AbdelRahman Mansour and the final decision to a brainstorming session over a month earlier with Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, in which they agreed that the Facebook page would spearhead the call, while the activist group would take care of logistics.[x] (April 6 had already mobilised for that date – Police Day – in the past.) And as the idea of a protest on that and subsequent dates caught on, it was worked out and made operational by several other already existing and then sprouting organisations and affinity groups.

The communication that enabled the Arab Spring (or 15M and Occupy) did not simply spread from one individual to the next via social media; in each case, what happened was always a much more complex relay between already established hubs – either ‘strong tie’ groups or communication nodes with a large following and credibility – and a long tail of ties with decreasing intensity, in a sort of ripple effect with many epicentres. If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only. This is even more explicit in those cases, such as 15M and Occupy, where there was an open, overground organising process prior to things ‘kicking off’.[xi]

Finally, it is interesting to speculate on how the beginnings of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are tied to death and sacrifice, of Mohammed Bouzizi and Khaled Said above all. There is no greater test of commitment, or of the strength of ties, than being ready to die. The relation between years of police abuse and violence, and then the irrepressible resolve demonstrated by protesters in those countries – the way in which the risk of taking action being the highest was turned into the most fundamental ‘strengthener’ of ties: the disposition to die together if necessary, and the solidarity that it creates – seems clear.

 

The Primary Organisational Form of 2011 was Not the Assembly

At the most evident level, the primary organisational form employed by movements in 2011 was the camp. From the extraordinary example set by Tahrir Square, the model spread to Wisconsin, Israel, Spain (where, however, it was an unplanned outcome of the 15 May demonstration); and then, after Occupy Wall Street (initially devised as a camp) and the 15 October day of global action, to the rest of the world. It was the most powerful meme, which is unsurprising seeing as it provided the most stirring images and, with Egypt, the most captivating victory.

Yet it is important to bear in mind the precise connection between form and goal that made Tahrir into a victorious symbol. For more than simply a meme, it was a tactic that consisted in concentrating the movement in one place with a very concrete, if negative, demand: that Mubarak step down. Even then, it is clear that it would not have managed to achieve its goal had the regime not realised they were losing control of several other parts of the country.

As the camp became a meme, this connection was lost. It is remarkable that the first tweet from @acampadasol – the first Twitter account of the first ‘spontaneous’ (i.e. moving from strong ties to developing strong ties along the weaker intensity long tail) camp in Spain, at Puerta del Sol, Madrid – stated that ‘we shall stay here until we reach an agreement’. Who ‘we’ was, and with whom agreement was to be reached, were things left unstated in the micro-blogging website’s peculiar syntax. By the time it got to the various worldwide ‘Occupy’ that sprung after October 15, this tie was lost. The same can be said about other related memes, such as the ‘human mic’, which started out as a practical solution to a ban on amplification at Zucotti Park in New York, and went on to become a marker of a certain ‘Occupy’ way of doing politics, even where the original impediment that had elicited it did not exist.”

About the Author

“Rodrigo Nunes is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Brazil. He coordinates the research group Materialismos, which investigates the resurgence of metaphysical speculation in contemporary philosophy and its interfaces with other fields such as politics, science and anthropology. He has been involved in several political initiatives over the years, such as the first editions of the World Social Forum and the Justice for Cleaners campaign in London. He is a member of the editorial collective of Turbulence (http://turbulence.org.uk).”

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Video Vortex #10 Istanbul

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
28th October 2014


VideoVortex_IstanbulIstanbul, Oct 31 & Nov 1, SALT Beyoglu and SALT Galata.

The 10th annual meeting of Video Vortex is to be hosted in Istanbul at venues and institutions around GALATA all involved in this year’s topics: art, activism and archives..

The 10th annual meeting of Video Vortex is to be hosted in Istanbul at venues and institutions around GALATA all involved in this year’s topics: art, activism and archives..

The two-day event of workshops, speaker-led sessions, discussions, panels and work on show will explore how video, art and activism criss-cross questions of recording, archives and archiving, and how working with these intersections can re-motivate engagement from one to the other in important and novel ways.

Video’s capacities for both recording and transmission has meant that it has moved into spaces of visibility and the visual in ways that contest as well as confirm the dominant meanings and effects, across different socio-political and cultural frameworks. Video Vortex 10 will consider different issues opened up across the histories, presents and futures of video, from ‘live on tape’ to ‘live streaming’, and from one paradigm of surveillance to another, exploring the ways in which early as well as recent and contemporary video technologies and practices contest accounts of normative realities by renegotiating boundaries between the live, the recorded or the streamed, challenging repressive norms via inventive modes of archival access.

The interests and values of art and activism, sometimes taken to be in conflict, converge around this renegotiation of the meanings of video and the terms of its storage and use. As forms of data gathering enable new forms of covert observation, by the agents of states and corporations, how can video interrupt or divert these processes?

Video Vortex 10 Istanbul thus aims to bring together those who, working with inventive ways of accessing, classifying or ‘declassifying’ video recordings and transmissions are seeking to reinvent the terms of freedom, across places and spaces of cultures, processes and practices of memory, representation and senses of future.

Information about subscription to the Video Vortex discussion list can be found at: http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/videovortex_listcultures.org

Program details are available at:
http://videovortex10.net/?page_id=52

For inquiries regarding participation, contribution or submission of related works, please contact Lewis Johnson (lewiskjohnson@gmail.com), Andreas Treske (treske@gmail.com), or Ozge Celikaslan (ozge.celikaslan@gmail.com).

Video Vortex # 10 Istanbul
Friday October 31 / Saturday November 1, 2014
Locations: SALT Beyoglu and SALT Galata
http://videovortex10.net

Source – http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=68159

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Movement of the Day: Solidarity Economy St. Louis

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Stacco Troncoso
25th October 2014


ferguson-1

Here’s a very inspiring interview with Solidarity St. Louis, an anti-capitalist, social justice and commons-oriented collective out of St Louis, Missouri. We’d like to thank the author, Mira Luna, for encouraging us to republish it.


Since early August, the tragic killing of Mike Brown has caught fire in the news. It’s no surprise that mainstream media has limited the conversation to this one isolated incident. But it leaves a crucial void of voices for change that are working to solve the economic inequalities that create racial injustice in the first place.

Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) is a grassroots organization that has taken the lead in organizing the community around the Mike Brown case, systemic racism and building a solidarity economy in St. Louis through a new project called Solidarity Economy St. Louis. We caught up with MORE Organizer, Julia Ho, to get MORE’s unique take on how sharing projects can support social justice organizing and why we shouldn’t ignore social justice in the struggle to create a new economy.

Why did MORE shift into solidarity economy organizing from more traditional political organizing?

In 2011, the Occupy movement sparked a pattern of people thinking about the economy in a different way, so we shifted our organizing strategy. We asked ourselves, “How can we do decentralized, anti-capitalist work and support what’s already happening?” Around this time last year, we decided it would be most effective to create a campaign working from two angles 1) connecting and sharing best practices for solidarity economy projects and 2) building political and economic power through organizing. We also knew that racial divisions restricted access to resources in the city and felt that a robust solidarity economy network could play a role in addressing those problems.

In St. Louis, a major symptom of racial oppression is the criminalization of poverty, which leads to further economic insecurity and segregation. For example, cities depend heavily on traffic fine revenue to sustain themselves, which creates an unfair burden on the working poor and those affected by racial profiling because unpaid fines often lead to bench warrants and jail time. Currently, we are working on an initiative to get traffic fines paid through community service projects that are managed through our local timebank, the Cowry Collective, while also putting pressure on the municipal courts to stop issuing these warrants in the first place.

Launch event for Solidarity Economy St. Louis

Why did this work lead you to start a new project – Solidarity Economy (SE) St. Louis?

We wanted to build a local network of people who are doing similar projects and could also pull together to fight economic and racial injustice. Our idea was that MORE would help to convene this table, but that the network would consist of groups and organizations that extend beyond our membership.

SE St. Louis currently does campaign organizing, education, and strategy meetings with people affected by bench warrants. We work with the Cowry Collective Timebank, the Organization for Black Struggle, Sistahs Talkin’ Back, the Coalition to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex, Grace Hill’s MORE Dollar Network, Blank Space, sustainable deconstruction and recycling organizations, free stores, art collectives, immigrant rights organizations like Latinos en Axion, the St. Louis Ecovillage Network, and are looking to connect with several urban gardens and neighborhood tool libraries.

Can you explain your plan to address the injustice of bench warrants for minor infractions through the use of timebanking or other alternative economic practices?

Through our work around bench warrants, we’re hoping to shift the conversation around alternative economics to call attention to systems that oppress people and exclude them from the current economy, such as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). It’s hard for people to participate in the alternative economy if they have to fight daily to survive, to not get put in jail or lose their housing. Recently, a group of local lawyers sent a letter to Mayor Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, to clear all fines for nonviolent offenses (there are about 3 warrants of this kind per household). The reasoning behind this amnesty initiative is documented in a white paper by the ArchCity Defenders.

As a result of the hard work of these lawyers, combined with pressure from our campaign and national media attention in the aftermath Mike Brown’s murder, Ferguson actually amended its city charter to include several reforms to the municipal court system. Most recently, St. Louis City announced on October 1st that 220,000 warrants for nonviolent offenses will be cleared. These changes were big victories for our campaign, but these are just first steps. Clearly, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to ensure that people are not being exploited by the courts or the police. In addition to the other work that MORE has been doing in Ferguson, one of our next steps is to start a Timebanking program that will expand throughout St. Louis which will allow people to work off their fines by exchanging services in their community.

Cowry Collective Timebank Meetup

What’s your long-term vision for economic transformation in St. Louis and how do shared resources, the commons and cooperatives fit in?

Ultimately, our vision is to see people having true democratic power over their resources and the decisions that affect their lives. In St. Louis, corporate power rules. Peabody, the largest privately owned coal corporation in the world, is headquartered here. Monsanto is headquartered here. Boeing has a major base of operations here. These corporate powers, along with many others, heavily influence public policy and funnel money into nearly every cultural institution. As a result, people tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that these corporations are robbing millions of dollars in tax breaks per year from public schools and other city services.

Last year, we were working on a ballot initiative campaign called Take Back St. Louis that over 8 months received 36k signatures. Take Back St. Louis was essentially designed to divert tax breaks ($61,000,000 to Peabody alone) to green jobs, community gardens and renewable energy projects. It got on the ballot, but Peabody successfully filed an injunction and even inserted an amendment at the state level that prohibited St. Louisans from passing any initiatives that limit tax breaks to coal corporations. We are in the midst of an appeal process now, but the Take Back St. Louis campaign is a perfect example of how our democracy is currently being subverted.

Another major issue in the city is massive plots of vacant homes and land, which are a direct result of decades of white flight. St. Louis has over 10k vacant homes and many more private vacant lots. Developers see it as an opportunity, the city sees it as a blight, but what about the people that live there? How do we develop St. Louis in a way that’s constructive of a new economic paradigm? People are already doing it, but it’s not being recognized or supported in the ways that it should be. We want people who live in these communities, who are primarily low income people and people of color, to be dictating where the city’s resources are spent.

Map of Shared Resources in St. Louis

St. Louis has been the subject of a lot of media attention around racism lately with the murder of Michael Brown. How does your work address systemic racism?

This moment is significant because it is a chance to push forward a national movement against systemic racism. Mike Brown is not the first Black man to be killed by the police, and sadly he will not be the last–every 28 hours, a Black man or woman is extra-judicially killed. Bench warrants are just one small symptom of the widespread problem of the criminalization of Black and Brown communities. So we are doing what we can to uplift organizations that are already deeply rooted in the community, such as the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, and also support newly politicized and radicalized young leaders off of the streets by training them in their organizing skills.

Do you have any particular models of cities or projects you look to for inspiration?

We originally took a lot of inspiration from Solidarity NYC, their mission and vision. We’re also excited to connect with organizers in Detroit with the Our Power campaign, as well as folks with Cooperation Jackson who are doing incredible work to transform their local economy.

How can people get involved?

  • We just organized an event about Mike Brown and the bench warrant campaign and have a upcoming big event called Ferguson October from October 10-13th.
  • You can get further updates on campaigns and events from the Solidarity Economy St. Louis or MOREFacebook pages or follow #UnWarranted.
  • Donate to the legal support fund for justice for Mike Brown
  • Donate to the Ferguson October Weekend of Resistance

Header photo courtesy of Ferguson October

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Posted in Activism, Commons, Cooperatives, Featured Content, Featured Movement, P2P Collaboration, Politics | No Comments »

Video of the Day: 3 hacks for a resource-based economy

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Michel Bauwens
23rd October 2014


From the notes to the video:

The Zeitgeist Movement Ecuador invited Michel Bauwens to talk about a possible transition towards a Resource-based economic model and the “hacks” he proposes to achieve this (edited to include English audio only).

Michel Bauwens:

In this video I explain how, through the Commons-Based Reciprocity License, one can create an ethical entrepreurial coalition which co-produces commons, and which can, through the adoption of open book accounting and shared open logistics, move the ‘stigmergic’ mutual coordination which already exists for the production of immaterial goods (knowledge, code, design), to physical production itself.

This is a quote from our latest book, ‘Network Society and Four Scenarios for the Collaborative Economy‘, which touches on that issue:

“Through the ethical economy surrounding the Commons, by contrast, it becomes possible to create non-commodified production and exchange. We thus envision a resource-based economy which would utilize stigmergic mutual coordination through the gradual application of open book accounting and open supply chain. We believe that there will be no qualitative phase transition merely through emergence, but that it will require the reconstitution of powerful political and social movements which aim to become a democratic polis. And that democratic polis could indeed, through democratic decisions, accelerate the transition. It could take measures that obligate private economic forces to include externalities, thereby ending infinite capital accumulation.”

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Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Events, Featured Content, Featured Video, Original Content, P2P Foundation, P2P Subjectivity, Politics | No Comments »

Video of the Day: Dilar Dirik, Kurdish Women’s Movement

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hartsellml
21st October 2014


Dilar Dirik, Kurdish Women’s Movement at the New World Summit Brussels, 2014. http://vimeo.com/107639261.

At the New World Summit in Brussels (2014), Dilar Dirik, an activist with the Kurdhish women’s movement, and doctoral scholar discusses the conditions under which the PKK operates in the three autonomous cantons in northern Iraq, near the borders of Turkey and Syria. Currently, the region is under assault from Islamic State forces. Her thesis is the unnecessary imposition of the nation-state system in favor of the Stateless State and the role women play, on the front lines, and in society. States are inherently oppressive and violent and under oppressive, statist systems women play the role of reproducers of the state system. There must be emancipation in a meaningful way. In the region around Kobane, the cantons show a resiliency to exist and to maintain a peaceful and democratic system, which is multicultural, within a hostile region both from Turkey and now the Islamic State or “the disgusting mentality which calls itself the Islamic State” which they have been fighting for two years but a conflict which has only just made news, recently. She reports that 70,000 had been displaced in the first 24 hours of fighting.

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Posted in Activism, Featured Video, P2P Warfare | No Comments »

Podcast of the Day/C-Realm: March Then Flood

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Stacco Troncoso
16th October 2014


C-Realm_433_cover

KMO shares a variety of interviews, along with his impressions on the pseudo-mainstream People’s Climate March and the wilder affair that was Flood Wall Street. Originally published at C-Realm.com


From the Shownotes to the episode:

KMO attended the People’s Climate March on Sunday and Flood Wall Street the next day. The first event was a permitted march that respected authority and was timed not to disrupt business. The second was unauthorized and was deliberately disruptive to traffic around the icons of finance capital in lower Manhattan. There were zero arrests at the People’s Climate March. There were 102 arrests at Flood Wall Street. KMO shares interviews collected on location at both events.

 

Links:

Socialist Alternative: http://www.socialistalternative.org/
Autonomous Resilient Community 38: http://arc38.org/
Renée Renata Bergen: http://www.renegadepix.net/
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Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Culture & Ideas, Featured Content, Featured Podcast, Media, P2P Ecology, Podcasts, Politics | No Comments »

John Holloway on Changing the World Without Taking Power

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David Bollier
15th October 2014


JohnHolloway-main

John Holloway, a sociology professor in Mexico, recently gave an interview with Roar magazine suggesting how to introduce a new social and economic logic in the face of the mighty machine of neoliberal capitalism.  Holloway’s idea, recapitulating themes from his previous book and 2002 thesis, is to build “cracks” in the system in which people can relate to each other and meet their needs in non-market ways:  “We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking confluence, or preferably, the commoning of cracks.”

This strategic approach has immediate appeal to commoners, it seems to me — even though some engagement with state power is surely necessary at some point.  Below, Holloway’s interview with by Amador Fernández-Savater. It was translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World Without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

:::::::::::::::::::::::

Firstly, John, we would like to ask you where the hegemonic idea of revolution in the 20th century comes from, what it is based on. That is, the idea of social change through the taking of power.

I think the central element is labor, understood as wage labor. In other words, alienated or abstract labor. Wage labor has been, and still is, the bedrock of the trade union movement, of the social democratic parties that were its political wing, and also of the communist movements. This concept defined the revolutionary theory of the labor movement: the struggle of wage labor against capital. But its struggle was limited because wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.

I don’t understand the relation between this idea of labor and that of revolution through the taking of state power.

One way of understanding the connection would be as follows: if you start off from the definition of labor as wage or alienated labor, you start off from the idea of the workers as victims and objects of the system of domination. And a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers (considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state. Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left governments that currently exist in Latin America.

But this tradition isn’t the only approach to a politics of emancipation…

Of course not. In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish indignados.

But it isn’t a question of the opposition between an old and a new politics, I think. Because what we see in the movements born of the economic crisis is that those two things come to the fore at the same time: cracks such as protests in city squares, and new parties such as Syriza or Podemos.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our experience under capitalism is contradictory. We are victims and yet we are not. We seek to improve our living standards as workers, and also to go beyond that, to live differently. In one respect we are, in effect, people who have to sell their labor power in order to survive. But in another, each one of us has dreams, behaviors and projects that don’t fit into the capitalist definition of labor.

The difficulty, then as now, lies in envisioning the relation between those two types of movements. How can that relation avoid reproducing the old sectarianism? How can it be a fruitful relation without denying the fundamental differences between the two perspectives?

Argentina in 2001 and 2002, the indignados in Greece and Spain more recently. At a certain point, bottom-up movements stall, they enter a crisis or an impasse, or they vanish. Would you say that the politics of cracks has intrinsic limits in terms of enduring and expanding?

I wouldn’t call them limits, but rather problems. Ten years ago, when I published Change the World without Taking Power, the achievements and the power of movements from below were more apparent, whereas now we are more conscious of the problems. The movements you mention are enormously important beacons of hope, but capital continues to exist and it’s getting worse and worse; it progressively entails more misery and destruction. We cannot confine ourselves to singing the praises of movements. That’s not enough.

Could one response then be the option that focuses on the state?

It’s understandable why people want to go in that direction, very understandable. These have been years of ferocious struggles, but capital’s aggression remains unchanged. I sincerely hope that Podemos and Syriza do win the elections, because that would change the current kaleidoscope of social struggles. But I maintain all of my objections with regard to the state option.

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

Could it be a matter of complementing the movements from below with a movement oriented towards government institutions?

That’s the obvious answer that keeps coming up. But the problem with obvious answers is that they suppress contradictions. Things can’t be reconciled so easily. From above, it may be possible to improve people’s living conditions, but I don’t think one can break with capitalism and generate a different reality. And I sincerely believe that we’re in a situation where there are no long-term solutions for the whole of humanity within capitalism.

I’m not discrediting the state option because I myself don’t have an answer to offer, but I don’t think it’s the solution.

Where are you looking for the answer?

Whilst not considering parties of the left as enemies, since for me this is certainly not the case, I would say that the answer has to be thought of in terms of deepening the cracks.

If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity, which, to me, seems to be on capitalism’s agenda as a real possibility, then the only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.

If we think in terms of state and elections, we are straying away from that, because Podemos or Syriza can improve things, but they cannot create another world outside the logic of capital. And that’s what this is all about, I think.

Finally, John, how do you see the relation between the two perspectives we’ve been talking about?

We need to keep a constant and respectful debate going without suppressing the differences and the contradictions. I think the basis for a dialogue could be this: no one has the solution.

For the moment, we have to recognize that we’re not strong enough to abolish capitalism. By strong, I am referring here to building ways of living that don’t depend on wage labor. To be able to say “I don’t really care whether I have a job or not, because if I don’t have one, I can dedicate my life to other things that interest me and that give me enough sustenance to live decently.” That’s not the case right now. Perhaps we have to build that before we can say “go to hell, capital.”

In that sense, let’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

And there are a great many people dedicated to this effort, whether out of desire, conviction or necessity, even though they may not appear in the newspapers. They’re building other forms of community, of sociality, of thinking about technology and human capabilities in order to create a new life.

John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. His latest book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010).


Originally posted at bollier.org

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Podemos as a template for the New Left

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Stacco Troncoso
11th October 2014


Mitin PODEMOS en Málaga
Joana Ramiro writing for Left Unity, describes how Podemos’ unprecedented tactics and organizational methods can reinvigorate the New Left in Europe though a wider (if not full) acceptance of P2P dynamics. You can read the original article here.


“Marketing guru Philip Kotler wrote that “the costumer will judge the offering by three basic elements: product features and quality, services mix and quality, and price. All three elements must be meshed into a competitively attractive offering.” It might sound obscene to some that I strongly believe there is much that the Left could take from this sort of advice.”

People push through in order to get into the room and reserve their seat. There is a buzz of euphoric expectation blending with rapid chatter in Castellano. This is the start of a Podemos meeting but it could have been a rock gig for all we know. When panel speakers finish their opening remarks ardent applause follows, people whoop and whistle in wondered appreciation. Credit, I suppose, has to be given mostly to the organisation at the core of it all.

Podemos is a Spanish anticapitalist party founded in January 2014. By beginnings of September it counted no less than 120,000 members and 20% ratings in the latest polls. It had elected five MEPs and is set to take Spain by storm at the next general election in December 2015. Its success is often described as part mystery, part formulaic “Twitter revolution” theory. And while it is true that Podemos reflects the political zeitgeist and has effectively built itself on the momentum of the 15M movement, there is much more to be said about its politics, strategy and exponential growth.

“I think we can emulate [Podemos] in the organising in the grassroots, drawing people in, speaking to the 90%, using social media when necessary”, Left Unity co-founder and revolutionary film-director Ken Loach tells me.

He adds another example of what Left Unity should be doing differently: “Using fresh language.”

But what does that mean?

It isn’t the first time I hear that we need to speak differently. During the build up to the British student movement of 2010/2011 I often had heated debates with members of the so-called “old Left” arguing for more Public Relations, more social media – on our side. It is well documented that uprisings don’t occur from a hashtag alone, but learning to communicate in progressive ways – even to co-opt some capitalist strategies of mass appeal – seems to be vital for any political organisation attempting to produce change in the twenty-first century.

“I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

And according to Cristina, the process of being publicly recognised as a legitimate organisation does not happen instantaneously.

“You know, it’s little by little. They didn’t just overnight end up on these morning talk shows. They established those media connections, their media savvy and catchy and interesting direct actions, and then they engaged.”

She agrees that much like corporations have adopted more democratic channels of communication – such as the social media platforms Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to promote their products, so must social movements learn how to take over and efficiently use mass media channels for their causes.

“Alternative media is absolutely crucial, don’t get me wrong, but also engaging with mainstream media and mass media and thinking very holistically about how to combine those campaigns.”

The key lies in “retro-feeding” your message through these many avenues. It’s a process through which groups must constantly try “to keep on message and keep tweaking it and subverting and contesting”, she argues.

But what does this essentially mean?

In short it means the ways of organising that the British Left has taken for granted so far are utterly necessary but useless if not linked to two other tactics:

Firstly, the mentioned multifaceted approach to putting your message across. Leafleting door to door and holding local branch meetings is necessary, but so is blogging and writing opinion pieces for your local paper (they might be a dying breed but they are still read by thousands of people in your neighbourhood).

Secondly, keeping the message simple, clear and to the point. The Podemos programme is built on six simple aims, all based on the principle of democracy. It abides to the usual “rules and regulations” of socialist organisations – standing against sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudice and exclusion – but it gives members a clear structure of argument. It is therefore easy to understand, support and regurgitate. Unlike what some crude critics argue, the point is not to unite under the lowest common denominator, but to leave very specific alignments to debate and to group scrutiny, rather than to make them be-all end-all foundations of the organisation. Where one stands on the issue of Palestine or Scottish independence is important, but it won’t be helpful if taken outside the context of the organisation’s original purpose – to be the genuine political representation of the overworked, underpaid, disaffected 99%.

Importantly too is that these messages can be improved as the organisation grows. “Keep tweaking it” – as Flesher puts it. Political organisations today (perhaps always) have to be adaptable to the demands of the majority. As long as the principles of democracy and equality are not broken, the organisation needs to know when to talk about austerity and when to talk elections. Political parties are propaganda tools as much as they are forums of expression and activity for their members. If the people on the street – the “Polish fruit-picker and the Nigerian nurse” as Owen Jones often describes them – want more from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), then the party needs to verbalise that discontent, not pander to cronyism.

Above all, perhaps what is impressive about the Podemos strategy, and which should definitely be a lesson to us all, is its ability to embrace nuance and not to give in to black and white solutions to the problems at hand. Realpolitik is after all the art of advancing your political project when possible and giving way when necessary, without ever compromising your ethos. The Podemos European elections’ strategy was the brainchild of Íñigo Errejón, the man who said that “each country has to find its tools” to “hijack democracy”. The understanding that one needs to be flexible whilst sticking to one’s core beliefs has often been amiss on the British Left.

But don’t you need mass to attract mass?

Newton’s law of universal gravitation only applies to politics to a point. It is true that social movements and political parties can snowball once they’ve gained momentum. But where that momentum comes from and how political attraction can operate despite inexistent visible mass are points that Left Unity should think about long and hard.

Sceptics have come forward saying that unlike countries like Greece and Spain, Britain does not currently have a political movement active on the streets. There are no occupations of public squares going on, no million-strong demonstrations. This often crystallises into what I see as a misunderstanding of Rosa Luxemburg’s Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation (but let us leave that for another article). Crucially, we need to recognise that whilst many of these social movements and new anticapitalist parties have come out of a fortuitous sequence of events, organisations of different forms were involved in creating them from the start.

In Spain the 15M and the Indignados movement grew out of the said “indignation” of certain layers of society with a series of oppressive laws pushed through by neoliberal knee-jerk reactions of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) then in power. A cull of digital activism through the Ley Sinde, a media crackdown on strikes and workers’ protests, and the generally declining life and working conditions in the country (youth unemployment at 47% by 2011) created an explosive environment. Different activist groups started mushrooming about, some visible only online, many others on the streets too, handing out manifestos printed on A5 sheets.

According to Pablo Gerbaudo – a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London and author of Tweets and the Streets (Pluto Press, 2012) – the popularity of the Democracia Real Ya campaign and the momentum towards the first May 15 demonstration was seen as “an opportunity to overcome division and inertia”. Several other groups joined in the call and “200 civil society organisations, including well-established groups like the anti-globalisation group ATTAC” joined in the call for action.

Their self-description as “neither left nor right” – which Podemos echoes and which is yet another discussion to be had in another article – did not mean they were actually outside or beyond the political spectrum. Standing for democracy, equality and collective decision-making processes the Indignados movement was well to the Left of the establishment, but also permeated with left-wing activists and even organisations from the get go. Our engagement with local issues and grassroots initiatives, not by demanding to lead them, but by fight side by side with those who are part of them is essential. Much like our duty to call for action where coordinated action is needed and yet not existent. To call for united action when there are three different campaigns. And to throw our weight behind those most representative, inclusive and efficient at that.

So what needs to be done?

I am not claiming to have the answer to the perfect left-wing party in Britain – I wish I did – but I do think there are lessons to be learnt from the successes and the failures of similar projects across Europe.

I also believe that, against my better (orthodox Marxist) judgement, we need to co-opt the dexterity and shrewdness of capitalist forms of propaganda in order to make ourselves visible and heard.

Marketing guru Philip Kotler wrote that “the costumer will judge the offering by three basic elements: product features and quality, services mix and quality, and price. All three elements must be meshed into a competitively attractive offering.” It might sound obscene to some that I strongly believe there is much that the Left could take from this sort of advice.

We know that our “product” is good – it is the best, in fact. In our politics we rest the hope for a better world. A world in which there is absolute equity, equality and equilibrium. The world socialists want to build is one of greatness, not just for a selected few but for every single person in this good old world. Who could possibly not want that?

Our “price” isn’t half bad. OK, so people know that building a better world is no smooth task. People know it because creating this not so amazing version we currently have is not that easy either. But when given the option to make things better for themselves and their loved ones, people do move mountains. People have always given their lives for their children, laboured harder to feed their elderly, gone to prison for the right to vote, the right to use the same facilities, the right to stand up straight and live with dignity. It wouldn’t be now – no matter how cynical this world might seem – that people would stop being inspired by a message of progress and prosperity.

But our “service” is poor. We have interiorised our weaknesses, made to act in defence, holding on dearly to creeds and formulas like deranged alchemists. The average Joe thinks it best to stay away from the Left or to mock it for its impractical project. We – the Left – have allowed political opponents to define us by what we are not. People that demand the impossible, they said. People that want to take away from you your individual freedoms and your right to chose between an iPhone and a Nokia Lumia, they said. And now we are faced with the task to prove them wrong.

Thankfully we are not alone. We have seen that change of rhetoric happen on our very doorstep. When UKUncut came around, it positively changed the message from “people living above their possibilities” to “corporations not living up to their responsibilities”. The Occupy movement pulled a similar trick with the creation of the now ubiquitous term 99%: we cannot be made to pay for the banking crisis when what we have in our billions adds up to the same amount of what those few, clearly responsible for this mess, have in their few hundreds.

How we create that change of speech, of poise and above all of doing politics is what is now in our hands.

“It’s easier to make speeches where we denounce what is happening, the difficulty is asking the question and finding specific organisational answers”, Ken Loach pointed out to me with a smile.

But we have a growing number of people out there on the streets hungry for change. We have the examples of the rest of Europe showing us the way. We have history on our side. Nos Podemos. We Can. Let’s do it.

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5 tips for making better team decisions

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Stacco Troncoso
8th October 2014


You're making decisions by consensus, but are you collaborating?

Here is a guest contribution from our friend Richard D Bartlett, one of the developers at our favourite decision making tool, the wonderful Loomio. It was originally published at medium.com


Hi I’m Richard D. Bartlett: I work at Loomio, a team building an online tool for group decision-making. We started building software to coordinate activists, and now we help teams and organisations of all kinds make better decisions.
We’re a horizontal organisation, so good coordination is totally critical for us—not having a formal management structure means we’d fall apart without it. But all workplaces—even those with more traditional management structure—benefit when decisions are made with group input. With the right processes, you can leverage your team’s collective wisdom to make better decisions.

I asked our team of facilitators and software developers for their top tips for making better decisions, and surprisingly enough they had lots of great ideas! Here’s my favourite five:


1. Set the context and make the invitation

Decision-making is all about communication: your group can only make good decisions together if there’s a foundation of good communications in place first. This means being clear about what the purpose of a discussion or meeting is, who needs to be involved, what the time-frame is, and what people can expect.

Often, lack of engagement doesn’t mean people don’t care, it means something’s keeping them from real participation. Transparency isn’t about information not being secret, it means that the people closest to the information do the proactive work to make it accessible—physically and conceptually—to everyone who needs to understand it to participate in a decision effectively.


2. Try some simple process hacks

If you’re not happy with how your team is making decisions, don’t just try harder, try something different. We’ve found a bunch of different process hacks that have made us much more effective:

  • Stand up!
    Start the day with the team standing in a circle. Everyone answers 3 questions: what did you do yesterday? what are you doing today? is there anything blocking your way? Stand-up is only over once all the blocks are either solved, or people are assigned to resolve them. If you keep these meetings super short and strictly focussed on the process, you’ll find they’re like collaboration super-juice.
  • Check in
    We start many of our meetings with everyone ‘checking in’ before we get to the agenda. These check-ins are focused not on your work tasks, but on how you’re doing as a human being. If you’re going through a rough patch at home, or you’re sick, or you have exciting positive news, understanding your state of mind will help the entire group have the right context to interpret how you’re communicating.
  • Leave the office
    Periodically we’ll leave the office for an ‘Away Day’ or a weekend retreat. Getting out of the office means you leave the operational concerns behind so you have space for the deep strategic planning and culture-building that makes for a robust, agile organisation.

These practices are appropriate for different teams at different times. You might find some of them work for you, and you might need to invent some of your own.


3. Empower everyone to take acts of facilitation

Sometimes having a designated facilitator makes sense; you can also distribute the role so that everyone’s keeping their eye on group process. An act of facilitation is action taken from the perspective of what’s best for the group, as opposed to only your individual perspective.

This can take many forms, like:

  • noticing: “I’m sensing tension in this discussion, do we want to talk about where that’s coming from?”
  • giving feedback: “I hear what you’re saying, but the way you’re saying it might not being landing well for some people”
  • reflecting back to the group: “We seem to be bikeshedding on this—what if we left that aspect of the decision to the working group to determine, and we used our time now to focus on the core issues?”

These skills come from practice, and normalizing these kinds of statements through repetition and example. Acts of facilitation are not just for the manager, or the person who called the meeting—they are for everyone.


4. Listen for the people you’re not hearing

Good decisions come from diverse perspectives. Empowerment and innovation go hand in hand. If you want to innovate, you have to make space for different points of view—luckily, this is also what you need to do if you want a team where everyone is empowered. Whether you’re a software company building a product, or a community group organising for social change, you always need to be aware of who you’re listening to.

All kinds of cultural and technical factors conspire to privilege some voices at the expense of others. There are many practices you can implement to systematically challenge that bias, but just being aware of it is a good starting point.

A friend of mine named Charlie DeTar developed a neat little tool called the Progressive Clock, which is all about tracking how much speaking time in meetings is taken up by different demographic groups. Whether or not you use the software, the idea is super powerful—if everyone’s got the clock running in their head, you’re way less likely to only hear from the middle-aged white male contingent (don’t worry, I’m including myself in there) at the exclusion of everyone else.

Hearing new perspectives always lead to a more comprehensive understanding of an issue, which means you’re much more likely to make the right decision.


5. NEVER MAKE DECISIONS BY EMAIL!

Trying to make a group decision over email is like trying to tie a bunch of cats together with an eel while wearing oven mitts. Don’t bother! Email is great for one-to-one or one-to-many communication, but it just wasn’t designed for coming to clear outcomes. And neither was Facebook. Making decisions in a Facebook group is like trying to have a meeting in a shopping mall. You want to make sure you’re using the right tools for the job—when you need to bring an online group discussion to a clear decision, either use something purpose-built for decision-making (Loomio is obviously the one I’m pretty excited about) or get together in person.


When I had my first experience of a collective decision-making process that actually worked well, it totally changed my life. Since then I’ve been working with an amazing team to share this experience with as many people as possible.

Loomio co-founderRichard D. Bartlett

Getting group input into a decision always makes it better—it doesn’t just make people feel good, it leads to more innovative ideas and more effective collaboration. But it can be really challenging if you don’t have the right technical and cultural tools.

We’re pretty excited about the prototype tool we’ve developed so far, which all kinds of teams are already using to distribute decision-making and collaborate more effectively. Right now we’re crowdfunding so we can build an amazing new platform and give it away to the world.

These 5 tips are just a snapshot of what we’ve learnt so far. I’d love to hear from your experience! ?

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Book of the Day: The Prince of Evolution

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hartsellml
29th September 2014


* Book: The Prince of Evolution, By Lee Alan Dugatkin.

= the story of the Russian prince, evolutionary theorist, and political radical Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

 

Description

Eric Michael Johnson:

“In The Prince of Evolution Dugatkin tells the story of the Russian prince, evolutionary theorist, and political radical Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin whose Darwinian theory of mutual aid was the first to argue that cooperation was an integral part of natural selection. Today, the quest to understand how cooperative behavior evolved is one of the hotest areas in the life sciences, though few researchers realize that many of their questions were first posed by Kropotkin more than a century ago.

“Kropotkin was not only the first person who clearly demonstrated that cooperation was important among animals,” Dugatkin writes, “he was the first person to forcefully argue that understanding cooperation in animals would shed light on human cooperation.”

Dugatkin’s book [an excerpt of which has been posted at Scientific American.com] is a précis on Kropotkin’s life and work, an overview that highlights the common theme of mutual aid in both his scientific and political ideas. Some may be familiar with Kropotkin as the revolutionary theorist of anarchism, a political system in which people organize their own affairs at the local level without interference from an external government, but few are likely to realize that this “anarchist Prince” started out as a physical geographer and geologist whose work was celebrated around the world. The discoveries that Kropotkin made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Cambridge University endowed chair in geology (which he turned down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political work).

The Prince of Evolution offers a tantalizing peek into the life and ideas of a man Dugatkin calls “one of the world’s first international celebrities,” someone who filled auditoriums throughout Europe, England, and the United States with talks ranging from biology to anarchy to Russian literature. Kropotkin was a thinker whose ideas were so large that a single discipline could not contain them, and they were thought to be so dangerous that he was arrested multiple times and spent lengthy prison terms in Russia and France for communicating them. Part of what made him such a threat to the monarchs of Europe, Dugatkin suggests, was that Kropotkin refused to accept any authority that wasn’t based on scientific principles. He urged people everywhere to reject illegitimate tyranny and to use the tools of critical thinking and science to build a more equitable society themselves.” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/13/prince-of-evolution/)

 

Discussion

From an interview of author By Lee Alan Dugatkin by Eric Michael Johnson:

“He generally had a negative view of capitalism but, even more important, was his work on mutual aid in human evolution from early on through the medieval period. His research showed that over and over again people figured out a way to create small, interacting cooperative groups like the guilds in the Middle Ages. But the problem he found was that, as soon as these cooperative groups emerged, it immediately created selection pressures that favored parasites. These parasites would come in and suck up what they needed from individuals who were being good to one another and, eventually, cause the society to crumble. So, certainly, Kropotkin would not have been at all surprised by what has happened today.

I think this gets to the episodic nature of social change in Kropotkin’s view. As soon as you establish a cooperative society, you immediately create these dramatic forces that favor cheating. The question of how to stop that was one that Kropotkin was obsessed with.” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/13/prince-of-evolution/)

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