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Burn Up Not Out; Four Suggested Projects

by Aaron Peters

The Problem

The present moment is characterised by imperatives to ‘organise’ with too little attention paid to the kinds of organisation we think are appropriate in order to achieve our objectives. The debacle of Falkirk and Unite the union and the possibility, albeit remote, of a major trade union withdrawing funding from the Labour Party has rendered this question more pertinent than at any point in the last several years. While such a dilemma has been a constant background noise within the context of post-2010 austerity it now underlies events and dynamics that could influence the future of incumbent political actors in the UK. This in turn impacts our medium-term political opportunities. In any case such opportunities are set to massively expand between the next general election in 2015 with the continuation of austerity (most probably by a new government) and the ‘in-out’ EU referendum in 2017.

This short piece intends to outline what kinds of organisation are optimal in this context and how they would emphasize the strengthening and broadening of a currently weak social movement ‘base’. Examples of currently existing organisations that perform similar roles will be given. This is not done because such projects are thought of as politically agreeable and thus worthy of imitation but because they exhibit adaptations to the digital environment which anti-capitalist organising could and should learn from.

Even if the composition of appropriate organisational forms are changing for the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian movement(s) they are still necessary.

Background

Trade unions in the United Kingdom are large, well-resourced organisations with levels of democratic oversight not present in other interest groups which fund electoral actors and seek to affect favourable policy outcomes. As of 2013 Unite, one of Britain’s largest trade unions, has 1.42 million members; this can be compared to around 140,000 members for the UK Labour party and as few as 100,000 for the British Conservative Party. The malaise and seemingly terminal decline of both parties is addressed both here and here.

The conditions under which the Labour party was founded at the beginning of the 20th century are entirely different to our own. This is true both in terms of the information context but also the relative strength, and at the present moment relative weakness, of the social movement base. When the Labour Party was created it was amid conditions which indicate that the trade union, cooperative and socialist movements enjoyed a strong ‘social movement base’ alongside independent communications capabilities. Neither of these conditions are now observable.

Given present conditions it strikes me that were any union to attempt to initiate a ‘new party’ without giving due consideration to the relative weakness/ absence of a social movement base, and the interaction it would necessarily have to play in eventually successful outcomes, they would be wasting a great deal of time, energy and resources.

So what kinds of organisation are necessary in building the social movement base? Any answer must take into account the unquestionable dominance of the Conservative and market fundamentalist media in the United Kingdom. While such dominance initially appears overwhelming one should take comfort that such conditions are not entirely dissimilar to those which confronted the Democrat Party in the United States at the beginning of the 21st Century.

By 2004 the Democrat Party had seen George W Bush win two consecutive elections, losing both a majority in the Senate (2002) and seeing the Republicans increase their majority in the House of Representatives (2002) in the process. Discourse framing and agenda-setting was being entirely directed by interest groups on the right, primarily big business, the financial services industry and faith-based organisations. This  intersected with a media ecology hostile to even the most centrist of political messages. By the middle of the decade Karl Rove was a latter day Machiavelli who spoke of the ‘reality-based community’, while Fox News and right wing radio show hosts set the nation’s set political debate. Such a sense of overwhelming superiority was immortalised in the hubris of Karl Rove in an interview with Ron Suskind for the New York Times in 2004,

“The aide (Rove) said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works any more,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Yet  by 2012 the Democrats had won two presidential campaigns. More importantly huge shifts were evident nationally in the debate about legalising drugs, same-sex marriages and bodily autonomy/ reproductive rights. As well as that, large movements on the left of the Democrats (Wisconsin) and to the left of the Democrats (‘Occupy’ in 2011 and the US student movement in 2008/9) were mobilising. Such trends both within and beyond the Democrat party only look set to intensify in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. What is more the previously dominant Republican Party is a shadow of its former self and recognises that if it is to win office again it must change dramatically and engage with these incipient trends. The parameters of political debate have been transformed over the last ten years.

I have isolated changes in the United States and the Democrat Party not because I am a fan of the Obama administration, I am not. However what I hope the example does show is how quickly previously dominant political actors (the Republican Party), communications channels (Fox News) and messages (pro-austerity, anti-gay rights) can be undermined and replaced. The same is entirely plausible in the United Kingdom, and in a very short period. The project must be, therefore, to undermine and overcome not only the Conservative party (and its ruling ideology which has been central to UK public administration for several decades and remains at the heart of the Labour Party in opposition) but the media ecology and political messages which maintain its political credibility. Dominant messages *and* channels must be overcome. How?

Four projects to expand and deepen the social movement base

Below I identify four potential organisations that would massively change an at present weak anti-capitalist social movement base in the UK. All four have comparison organisations that already exist elsewhere and which work very effectively. The examples chosen do not indicate political agreement with their chosen ends but an appreciation for their organisational form, chosen means and the imminent possibility that such means might hold for anti-capitalist politics. The four organisations seen as necessary deal with four key issues in deepening and widening the existing social movement base: Resources; leadership and skills; thick networks; new communication channels. This is not an exhaustive list.

1) Resources  – There are already a number of organisations engaged in fantastic work. Foodbanks, direct action groups, groups founded on mutual aid, anti-fascist organising, new media actors – many do a great deal with very few tangible resources. At the same time we know that the UK has one of the highest levels of charitable giving in the world and is at present the second most generous country in terms of charitable giving with 79% of the population donating to a charity every month. In spite of that, money frequently goes to SMOs (social movement organisations) and lobby groups in order to maintain large functional bureaucracies. Many of these ‘legacy’ organisations have failed to adapt to the new digital context and as a consequence spend much larger sums of money on communication infrastructures than necessary. Here then lies both a problem and a solution. In terms of charitable giving the UK is a very generous country, yet such giving frequently goes to large organisations in order to maintain bureaucracies rather than emergent actors better suited to the new communications context and who are doing very valuable work on the ground in the UK. As well as this there is no real infrastructure for individuals wishing to run as independents or in left organisations for public office beyond the Labour Party.

ActBlue was started in the United States in 2004 and correlates with the low point of the US Democrat party during the Bush years. It was set up therefore in a period of counter-mobilisation, a period not dissimilar to our own, (albeit our own counter-mobilisation should be seen as being against a much wider constellation of political and economic forces than merely a single political party). The anti-capitalist left should similarly seek to create an organisation, where community, media and mutual aid groups can raise money. If done effectively there is no reason why this would not take a great deal of charitable donations currently being advanced to frequently ineffective and scelrotic social movement organisations and third sector actors. For the anti-capitalist and union movements to not have a disintermediated funding network limits our ability to have sufficiently well-resourced organisations. This would be a relatively low-cost effort which would require several full time staff at most. If done effectively it would change the landscape for potentially thousands of organisations seeking to fight austerity, neo-liberalism, capitalism and authoritarianism(s).

2) Leadership and Building Skills –  the most important thing for a social movement base is large numbers of people capably and collectively expressing grievances, identifying causes and articulating solutions. The New Organising Institute (NOI) in the United States offers one example of creating a space where large numbers of people come together to discuss and learn about community organising and how to use specific tools (which are used ineffectively by political elites in the UK *for now*) for building sustained networks and campaigns. What would a similar organisation in the UK achieve?

i) It would provide a first point of call for those who find themselves incensed at austerity and social injustice but at the same time see the very real limits of incumbent actors (the Labour Party) or are not wholly comfortable with joining others (direction action groups, new media projects) which are, although frequently permeable, perhaps intimidating to approach.

ii) Those already engaged in campaigns – anti-fees activists, black activists, workfare activists, LGBT activists would have a place where they could refine certain points of their own organisations where possible, particularly in the use of digital media, coordination and fundraising.

iii) Providing a space where (i) and (ii) would get to know one another, find points of mutual interest build social networks and potentially work together in the future.

This project might possess higher capital requirements but seems necessary, especially in creating links with communities that are already radicalised but find themselves isolated from other groups.

3) Having fun/ meetup space – the present moment is not defined by an inability to communicate with strangers. Instead the opposite holds true and we find ourselves in a context increasingly defined by ‘weak ties’ which become strong ones only when we meet offline, be it at protests, events or direct actions. Given the importance of such encounters the present set of possibilities for meeting seem limited, rigid and frequently formalised. In the absence of the social spaces that defined the cultivation of precisely these kinds of bonds a century ago (radical clubs, which would of course be highly welcome but which have massive capital requirements) an online actor similar to livingliberally.org would appear useful. Such a space would of course be of great use to emergent political groups and networks, more importantly however it would also create a space where people could get to know one another offline, where ‘newbies’ could discuss politics with others outside of formally hierarchical settings, where people could have fun, and where thin ties that characterise social networks built up over digital fora become thick ones. Living liberally currently has 212 local chapters in 45 states and the average meeting is a social event where people build very much social ties with one another. Again, given the low costs of creating this kind of online space – which might only require 2-3 full and part-time staff  – such an organisation commends itself.

4) New media channels – the contemporary context is defined by drastically reduced costs of engaging in multi-direction channels of communication (Benkler 2006). These are channels where the sender can both send and receive messages. Within this context to privilege the printing of an offline paper, an enterprise with major capital requirements and relatively poor outcomes, is to base one’s tactics on a fetish rather the most appropriate course of action. It is increasingly the case that if a medium isn’t user-led, it doesn’t tend to be popular. This is not to state the ‘radicalness’ of such technological affordance – anything but – it is merely stating an empirical observation.

What is more, individuals now frequently have the opportunity to have a greater media presence than organisations. This ties in with a number of technological trends which I think Paul Mason rightly refers to as the widening of the ‘bandwidth of the individual’. For individuals to engage in multi-directional channels of communication in the past meant (a) joining or working for an organisation (b) large capital requirements. Neither condition now holds true and new communication channels must adapt within this environment. This does not mean however that ‘networks beat hierarchies’ (Mason 2012) or that we can now organise without organisations’ (Shirky 2008). The incumbents, at their best, will adapt. The best example of this so far are the 2008/12 Obama election campaigns and ‘Organising for America’.

While there has been a tendency to think of emergent organisational forms as inevitably ‘replacing’ old organisations generated within, and suited to, a now dated information environment (Raymond 1999), these new actors should instead be seen as supplementing formal organisations, enriching and adding complexity to organisational forms rather than substituting the new for the old. As ever organisations have choices as to how they achieve their goals, activists have choices about what kinds of organisational forms they wish to develop and experiment with, and people have choices about what organisational forms they wish to engage with and contribute towards (Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl 2012). If anything the present moment can therefore be characterised by such choices expanding at every level rather than contracting.

At the same time the revenue generation model for the majority of incumbent media actors, specifically newspapers, is on borrowed time. The present moment thus provides new opportunities for the kinds of channels we wish to employ while simultaneously undermining the sustained viability of those communication channels currently employed by  institutional power which in the short to medium term appears unsustainable. To reiterate, it is not just messages that need to be attacked and undermined (austerity is necessary, capitalism is the optimal mode of economic organisation, we must secure our borders, immigrants are bad) but the channels must likewise be discredited.

So how might new communications channels be facilitated?

i) In one respect the problem is less money than know how, as already mentioned these channels have relatively low capital requirements but to use them effectively takes some practical knowledge. This is dealt with to some extent in suggestion 2.

ii) Manuel Castells claims that the post-2008 movements, particularly the Spanish 15M and the later US Occupy movement, used “autonomous communication” to develop social power via individuals that countered incumbent institutional communication power monopolies. Such movements should therefore be viewed as a hybrid of online social media networks and offline space through which protesters make themselves heard. Any successful, sustained channels of communication will have to adapt to this context. We also know however that the incredibly powerful information ecologies of the 15M and Occupy in the US have not sustained themselves beyond the intensity of initial episodes – my position in response to this limit would be that there was not a sustained ecology of media and political  organisation with the same technological affordances as these movements that could perpetuate them. While individuals and their use of multi-directional channels will drive new shifts it is equally true that we need organisations that seek to combine the best of the old and the new; creating quality, user-led content that receives high levels of feedback and co-creation from viewers/ listeners. Al Jazeera Stream is an impressive example of this within the current media landscape although of course subject to very particular political influences.

One variable that was present in the Arab Spring but not in the 15M, the US Occupy movement or other movements such as the Chilean and the (much shorter but technically unprecedented) UK student movement in 2010-11 was a media organisation providing coverage of events where others feared to go. Media hubs that created television, written and audio content and that could, during heightened episodes of contention, provide information and feedback to movements as well as extending their grievances and solutions to the wider population, would be of major practical benefit. When combined with an abundance of individuals using their own channels to similar ends it could create a formidable information ecology against which incumbent institutional channels would struggle. Indeed were this prospective actor to be acting effectively it would integrate those individuals with the most compelling and powerful channels within its own structures, thus bolstering their own capacity and linking up what can be disparate individuals operating in ‘issue silos’. Alongside this, media actors such as Project Syndicate also offer very interesting models of agenda-setting at not just the national but also the global and at very low cost.

While it is clear that a political party to the left of Labour may be of some use I am reticent in believing it offers many solutions. In fact I believe it would suck up huge resources for, in all probability, very low outcomes. This is particularly possible given the nature of the UK electoral system. What is more it is clear that in the absence of a historically large communist party which has helped give birth to new popular and radical electoral formations in both France (the FDG) and Greece (Syriza) headway would need to be made with regards to the social movement base in any case. What is more it is notable that the aforementioned actors still possess very clear limits in precisely these areas. Successful campaigns, parties, movements can only exist where there is a powerful social movement base – a social movement base being the social background, organisational resources and cultural framework of contentious collective action (Tarrow 2007).

To quickly summarise, in my view the following projects are necessary in generating a stronger and wider social movement base;

1) Disintermediated mechanisms for anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist initiatives to gain finance and organisational resources (the template here is ActBlue). This would require very low levels of funding and could possibly exercise a massive impact.

2) Leadership and Skills Building (the template here is NOI).This would create the possibility of disseminating anti-authoritarian practices of organising and endow participants with the requisite skills, tools and networks to scale and intensify existing and intended projects. This would require substantially higher levels of initial resources with a permanent space being optimal. Again it would however exercise a major impact if done well.

3) Social Space where thin online ties become thicker offline ones (the template here is drinkingliberally and theimaginaryparty. Skocpol (2004) has been very clear about the objective reasons why the ‘thick’ civil society organisations of the 60’s become the morose social movement organisations of the 1980’s and after. There is no reason why present tools can not reverse this trend. We are already seeing this with the growth of networks like ‘drinkingliberally’ which for any political limits (support of the Democrat Party) show a very interesting relationship of an online space brokering offline collective action which is fun and an unintimidating point of entry for newcomers. As with (1) this has very low start-up costs and could exercise a major impact on the social movement base.

4) Independent Communications Channels. At the individual level these can be cultivated by (2) and for smaller projects and organisations funded by (1). Such channels are entirely necessary to undermine not only the dominant messages articulated by institutional power but also in usurping their channels – the former will require the latter. We can not ‘change’ or ‘re-tool’ the mainstream media. What is also imperative is larger media hubs (something between Al Manar and Al Jazeera in form) that can interact with these more individual-centric channels, bringing them to a larger audience (and in turn expanding minor channel audiences) while also overcoming issue silos and showing the very strong relations between what may otherwise appear to insulated and isolated grievances. It would also be central in the formulation of ideas around collective action and responses while also covering and explaining events during heightened episodes of contestation to wider populations than those already participating or favourable to such events.

In conclusion any new electoral formation without the kinds of projects mentioned above would almost undoubtedly end in failure. In isolation a ‘party’ is a folly. What is most pressing is the strengthening and widening of the existing social movement base of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics in the UK.

Possible models that suggest imitation and that could be achieved at relatively low cost:

1) ActBlue – resources

2) NOI – leadership, building skills

3) Drinkingliberally – making offline ‘thin’ ties. offline thick ones. Also permits formation of discrete

4) Al Manar, Al Jazeera, Project Syndicate – agenda-setting, tying in disparate communication channels, discourse framing

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Published 7th July 2013

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