[iDC] A Reflection on the Activist Strategies in the Web 2.0 Era

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Feb 3 23:18:25 UTC 2009

Hi John,

I think we are mostly on the same page ... and I assume you know that my position is altogether different from that of the Christian Right ...


Here's a meditation on political  change, from the concluding chapter of David Bollier's Viral Spiral, a history of the emergence of the contemporary commons movement:

Three Types of Citizenship
In his book, The Good Citizen, sociologist Michael Schudson describes the evolution of three distinct types of citizenship over the past three centuries: 

- When the nation was founded, being a citizen meant little
more than for property-owning white males to delegate authority to a
local gentleman – and accept his complimentary glass of rum on election
day. This “politics of assent” gave way early in the nineteenth century
to a “politics of parties.” Parties conducted elaborate campaigns of
torchlight processions and monster meetings; voting day was filled with
banter, banners, fighting and drinking…. The third model of
citizenship, ushered in by Progressive reformers, was a “politics of
information.” Campaigning became less emotional and more educational.
Voting was by secret ballot. 

We are heirs to the “politics of information,” a model of
citizenship that presumes, like economics, that we are rational actors
who, if armed with sufficient quantities of high-quality information,
will make educated decisions and optimize civic outcomes. But as Walter
Lippmann noted and Schudson echoes, “if democracy requires
omnicompetence and omniscience from its citizens, it is a lost cause.”
Life is too busy, fast and complex. A new type of citizenship is
needed. Schudson offers a fairly weak prescription – the “monitorial
citizen,” a watchdog who vigilantly monitors the behavior of power. 

The Fourth Type of Citizenship
But it is precisely here that the Internet is offering up a new,
more muscular model of citizenship. I call it history-making
citizenship. The rise of the blogosphere over the past ten years is
emblematic of this new paradigm of citizenship. So is
citizen-journalism, free software, Wikipedia, the open educational
resources movement, open-business models like Jamendo and Flickr, and
the Creative Commons and iCommons communities. In one sense, the
citizenship that these groups practice is “monitorial” in that their
members spend a great deal of time watching and discussing. But
“monitoring” barely begins to describe their activities. The commoners
have the ability – rare in pre-Internet civic life – to publish and
incite others to action, and then organize and follow through, using a
growing variety of Web tools. With the advent of blogs, Meetups, social
networking, text-messaging and many other digital systems, citizens are
able to communicate, coordinate, organize and take timely action on a
wide range of matters, including matters of public and political

I call the new sorts of citizen behaviors “history-making”
because ordinary people are able to assert moral agency and participate
in making change. This capacity is not reserved chiefly to large,
impersonal institutions such as corporations, government agencies and
other bureaucracies. It is not a mere “participatory citizenship” in
which people can volunteer their energies to larger, more influential
leader, political party or institution in order to help out. It is a
citizenship in which the commoners themselves choose projects that suit
their talents and passions. Dispersed, unorganized groups of strangers
can build their own platforms and social norms for pursuing their
goals; instigate public action that would not otherwise occur (and that
may clash with the practices of existing institutions); and push
forward their own distinctive agenda. 

These behaviors exist in some measure in offline realms, of
course, but they are a growing norm in the digital republic. A few
examples will suffice to make the point. The Web helped create and
propel a handful of cause-oriented candidacies – Howard Dean, Ron Paul,
Ned Lamont* – who rapidly raised enormous sums of money, galvanized
large numbers of passionate supporters, and altered mainstream
political discourse. Although none prevailed in their races, Barack
Obama made a quantum leap in online organizing in 2008, raising $50
million in a single month from supporters via the Internet. Obama’s
candidacy was buoyed by the rise of the “netroots” -- Web activists
with a progressive political agenda – whose size and credibility enable
them to sway votes in Congress, raise significant amounts of campaign
funds and influence local activism. The stories are now legion about
blogs affecting political life – from the resignation of Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott after he praised the racist past of Senator
Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party, to the electoral defeat of
Senate candidate George Allen after his uttering of an ethnic slur,
“macaca,” was posted on YouTube. 

Citizens are now able to initiate their own policy initiatives
without first persuading the mainstream media or political parties to
validate them as worthy. For example, a handful of citizens troubled by
evidence of “hackable” electronic voting machines exposed the defects
of the Diebold machines and the company’s efforts to thwart public
scrutiny and reforms. (The effort has led to a nationwide citizen
effort, www.blackboxvoting.org, to expose security problems with voting
machines and vote counting.) An ad hoc group of activists, lawyers,
academics and journalists spontaneously formed around a public wiki
dealing with the lethal side effects of a best-selling antipsychotic
drug Zyprexa, and the manufacturer’s allegedly illegal conduct in
suppressing evidence of the drug’s risks. (Prosecutors later sought a
$1 billion fine against Pfizer.) 

The Web is giving individuals extra-institutional public
platforms for articulating their own facts and interpretations of
culture. It is enabling them to go far beyond voting and citizen
vigilance, to mount citizen-led interventions in politics and
governance. History-making citizens can compete with the mass media as
an arbiter of cultural and political reality. They can expose the
factual errors and lack of independence of New York Times reporters;
reveal the editorial biases of the “MSM” – mainstream media – by
offering their own videotape snippets on YouTube; they can even be
pacesetters for the MSM, as the blog Firedoglake did in its relentless
reporting of the “Scooter” Libby trial (Libby, one of Vice President
Cheney’s top aides, was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury
in connection with press leaks about CIA agent Valerie Plame.)
Citizen-journalists, amateur videographers, genuine experts who have
created their own Web platforms, parodists, dirty tricksters and
countless others are challenging elite control of the news agenda. It
is no wonder that commercial journalism is suffering an identity
crisis. Institutional authority is being trumped by the “social
warranting” of online communities, many of which are themselves a kind
of participatory meritocracy. 

History-making citizenship is not without its deficiencies.
Rumors, misinformation and polarized debate are common in this more
open, unmediated environment. Its crowning virtue is its potential
ability to mobilize the energies and creativity of huge numbers of
people. GNU Linux improbably drew upon the talents of tens of thousands
of programmers; certainly our contemporary world with its countless
problems could use some of this elixir – platforms that can elicit
distributed creativity, specialized talent, passionate commitment and
social legitimacy. In 2005, Joichi Ito, then Chairman of the board of
the Creative Commons, wrote: “Traditional forms of representative
democracy can barely manage the scale, complexity and speed of the
issues in the world today. Representatives of sovereign nations
negotiating with each other in global dialog are limited in their
ability to solve global issues. The monolithic media and its
increasingly simplistic representation of the world cannot provide the
competition of ideas necessary to reach informed, viable consensus.”
Ito concluded that a new, not-yet-understood model of “emergent
democracy” is likely to materialize as the digital revolution proceeds.
A civic order consisting of “intentional blog communities, ad hoc
advocacy coalitions and activist networks” could begin to tackle many
urgent problems. 

Clearly, the first imperative in developing a new framework
to host representative democracy is to ensure that the electronic
commons be allowed to exist in the first place. Without net neutrality,
citizens could very well be stifled in their ability to participate on
their own terms, in their own voices. If proprietary policies or
technologies are allowed to override citizen interests (Verizon
Wireless in 2007 prevented the transmission of abortion rights messages
on its text-messaging system, for example ), then any hope for
history-making citizenship will be stillborn. 

Beyond such near-term concerns, however, the emerging
digital republic is embroiled in a much larger structural tension with
terrestrial “real world” governments. The commoner is likely to regard
the rules forged in online commons as more legitimate and appropriate
than those mandated by government. 

Again, David R. Johnson: 

- The goals of a successful legal organism must be agreed
upon by those who live within it, because a legal system is nothing
more than a collective conversation about shared values. When it ceases
to be that kind of internally entailed organism, the law becomes mere
power, social “order” becomes tyranny, and the only option, over the
long term at least, is war. Organisms can’t be repaired from the
outside. But, with reference to interactions that take place primarily
online, among willing participants who seek primarily to regulate their
own affairs, that’s exactly where existing governments are situated –
outside the vibrant, self-regulating online spaces they seek to
regulate. Their efforts to engineer the Internet as if it were a
mechanism are not only fundamentally illegitimate but doomed by the
very nature of the thing they seek to regulate. They are trying to
create social order, of course. But they have not recognized…that order
in complex systems creates itself. 

The commoner is likely to regard the rules forged in online
commons as more legitimate and appropriate than those mandated by
government. After all, he or she is likely to have had a more
meaningful personal role in crafting those rules. Now, of course,
people live their lives in both online and terrestrial environments;
there is no strict division between the two. That said, as people’s
lives become more implicated in Internet spaces, citizens are likely to
prefer the freedoms and affordances of the open networked environment
to the stunted correlates of offline politics, governance and law. 

Indeed, this may be why so many activists and idealists are
attracted to online venues. There is a richer sense of possibility.
Contemporary politics and government have been captured by big money,
professionals and concentrated power. Professor Lessig cited such facts
in announcing his plans, in 2007, to address the systemic corruptions
of U.S. democracy and policymaking. In the digital republic, the ethic
of transparency deals harshly with institutional manipulations,
deceptions and bad faith. They literally become part of your “permanent
record,” forever available via a Google search. More fundamentally,
however, the digital republic has a fundamental respect for everyone’s
ability to contribute. It respects the principle of open access for
all. The “consent of the governed” really matters." 

A new kind of power
The viral spiral, after years of building its infrastructure and
social networks, may be approaching a Cambrian explosion, an
evolutionary leap. 
History suggests that any new style of politics and polity
will arrive through models developed from within the edifice of
existing law, markets and culture. A revolutionary coup or showdown
with existing institutions will not be necessary. Superior working
models – running code and a healthy commons – will trump polemics and

Ideological activists and political professionals are likely
to scoff at this scenario. After all, they are suspicious of
distributed political power, if not hostile to it. They prefer the
levers of consolidated power (laws, court rulings, police powers) that
are within their sphere of influence to the dispersed, sovereign powers
of an online multitude. The latter is highly resistant to capture and
control, and in that sense, profoundly threatening to the traditional
configurations of political power. We have already seen how the
mandarins of journalism, politics and business are quick to lash out at
the non-credentialed masses who dare to put forward this own
interpretations of the world. 

However necessary it is to engage in the official governance of
a nation, however corrupted, the commoners have shown that their
functioning commons can be powerful levers of change in their own ways.
A commons of technical standards for the Web – how mundane! – can
achieve more than most antitrust lawsuits. A common pool of information
can prevent a company from reaping easy monopoly rents from the control
of a public good. Instead, the company must “move upstream” to provide
more specialized forms of value (e.g., sophisticated graphing of the
information or data analysis). A commons may also be affirmatively
helpful to businesses, as Eric von Hippel has shown, by aggregating a
body of aficionados into a social community that aggregates customer
needs and preferences in highly efficient ways: the commons as a cheap
form of R&D and marketing. 

In either case, the rise of a commons can be disruptive not
just because it changes how market power is exercised, but because it
may disperse power to a broader community of participants. Recall
Johnson’s observation that a commons is a “self-causing legal order”
that competes with other legal orders. Individuals who affiliate with
an online community may acquire the ability to manage their own social
relationships and group identity. 

This is not just a form of marketplace power. It is a form of
political power. In effect, a group may be able to neutralize the power
of corporations to use brands to organize their identities. By
developing its own discourse and identity, an online community can
reject their treatment as a demographic cohort of consumers. They can
assert their broader, non-market concerns. As a group of commoners,
they are less susceptible to propaganda, ideology and commercial
journalism as tools for organizing their political allegiances. They
have greater civic sovereignty. 

“Free cooperation aims at distributing power,” argues Geert Lovink, a Dutch media theorist: 

- I am not saying that power as such disappears, but there is
certainly a shift, away from the formal into the informal, from
accountable structures towards a voluntary and temporal connection. We
have to reconcile with the fact that these structures undermine the
establishment, but not through recognizable forms of resistance. The
‘anti’ element often misses. This is what makes traditional,
unreconstructed lefties so suspicious, as these networks just do their
thing and do not fit into this or that ideology, be it neoliberal or
autonomous Marxist. Their vagueness escapes any attempt to deconstruct
their intention either as proto-capitalist or subversive. 

This can be disorienting. Energies are not focused on
resisting an oppressor, but rather on building innovative, positive
alternatives. In Buckminster Fuller’s terms, free culture is mostly
about building new models that make the existing models obsolete.
Instead of forging an identity in relation to an adversary, the
movement has built an identity around an affirmative vision and the
challenge of becoming. People feel fairly comfortable with a certain
level of ambiguity because the whole environment is so protean,
diverse, evolving and dynamic. 

The beauty of this “ideological straddle” is that it
enables a diverse array of players into the same tent without inciting
sectarian acrimony. (There is some, of course, but mostly at the
margins.) Ecumenical tolerance is the norm because orthodoxies cannot
take root at the periphery where innovation is constantly being
incubated. In any case, there is a widespread realization in the
networked world that shared goals are likely to require variable
implementations, depending on specific needs and contexts. 

It may appear that the free software hacker, blogger, tech
entrepreneur, celebrity-musician, college professor and biological
researcher have nothing in common. In truth, each is participating in
social practices that are incrementally and collectively bringing into
being a new sort of democratic polity. French sociologist Bruno Latour
calls it the “pixellation of politics,” which conjures up a pointillist
painting slowly materializing. The new polity is more open,
participatory, dynamically responsive and morally respected by “the
governed” than the nominal democracies of nation-states. The
bureaucratic state tends to be too large and remote to be responsive to
local circumstances and complex issues; it is ridiculed and endured.
But who dares to aspire to transcend it? 

Sooner or later, history-making citizenship is likely to take
up such a challenge. It already has. What is the digital republic,
after all, but a federation of self-organized communities, each seeking
to fulfill their members’ dreams by developing their own indigenous set
of tools, rules and ethics? The power of the commons stems from its
role as an organizing template, and not an ideology. Because it is able
to host a diverse and robust ecosystem of talent without squeezing it
into an ideological strait-jacket, the commons is flexible and
resilient. It is based on people’s sincerest passions, not on remote
institutional imperatives, and so it has a foundational support and
energy that can out-perform “mainstream” institutions. 

This, truly, is the animating force of the viral spiral: the
capacity to build one’s own world and participate on a public stage.
(Cicero: “Freedom is participation in power.”) When such energies are
let loose in an open, networked environment, all sorts of new and
interesting innovations emerge. Since an online commons does not have
the burden of turning a profit or supporting huge overhead, it can wait
for serendipity, passion and idiosyncratic brilliance to surface, and
then rely on the Internet to virally propagate the fruits. 

at the level of social practice, the commoners are gradually
building a very different moral economy that converges, from different
paths, on a new type of civic order. In Code, Lessig called it “freedom
without anarchy, control without government, consensus without power.” 

It is not entirely clear how the special capacities of
bottom-up networks – a “non-totalizing system of structure that
nonetheless acts as a whole,” in Mark Taylor’s words – can be
integrated with conventional government and institutions of power. It
is easy to imagine a future confrontation in the political culture,
however, as the citizens of the digital republic confront the stodgy
bureaucratic state (corporate and governmental). The latter will have
the advantages of constitutional authority and state and economic
power, but the former are likely to have the advantages of social
legitimacy, superior on-the-ground information and creative energy. How
the digital republic will confront the old regime, or supplant it
gradually as archaic institutions collapse over time, is the stuff of
future history." 

----- Original Message ----
> From: John Hopkins <jhopkins at tech-no-mad.net>
> To: iDC at mailman.thing.net
> Sent: Monday, February 2, 2009 11:52:24 PM
> Subject: Re: [iDC] A Reflection on the Activist Strategies in the Web 2.0 Era
> Hi Michael... et al (sorry this reflection was delayed by work at 
> transmediale... or, maybe call it play with a very enjoyable crew of people)
> >It is of course true that 'capitalism' and the 'market' pervades everything, 
> but so do the desires and actions for alternatives ...
> this would seem to be an expression of the innate conflict between individual 
> life and collective life...
> >Assuming that an infinite system of growth is incompatible with the survival of 
> our planet, would be then not be better to assume, despite it's present wounded 
> vivacity, that the animal is dead already, and go on with the business of 
> creating the life we want, even if we know we can only make a number of small 
> advances?
> Interesting, though, this could be perversely parallel to  the view of the 
> Christian Right in the US or at least it can have a very similar outcome -- they 
> assume that the "Second Coming" and the ensuing Apocalypse is right around the 
> corner -- so that there is no reason to deal with any environmental or social 
> issues because everything will be taken care of, so, let's keep the status quo 
> of "us" (because things still, for "us" are pretty good, after all)...
> >I think one of the for me powerful analogies that Negri used in Empire, was the 
> example of the christian communities, who didn't fight the emperor, but busied 
> themselves creating alternative infrastructures, and when the old macrosystem 
> collapsed, became the vehicle that the new overlords had to adapt.
> I have always taught that opposition leads to a profane propping-up of the 
> existing structures -- even the constant naming of a regime is detrimental to an 
> underclass, as that naming itself gives power (by giving attention) to that 
> which is named...  Better to completely ignore 'regime' and make a new path for 
> life...  this non-naming, non-attention (not giving life-time/life-energy to the 
> powers-that-be) is a primary mechanism for bringing a regime down...
> >What I propose to do is to rigorously note the manyfold attempts at more 
> autonomous living through p2p infrastructures in media, energy, and money, 
> interconnect them to a maximum extent, change the forms of consciousness and 
> paradigms (they are changing without us of course, but we can put some grease in 
> the system)
> yes, this is fundamental networking in the sense of opening alternative pathways 
> for attention which subsequently (hopefully) open up new ways of living and 
> be-ing...
> >By all means analyse, by all means resist,  but only that?
> As the son of a military-industrial operations analyst, personally, I believe 
> that the time for analysis is over.  The thinking patterns of analysis brought 
> us to this very problematic here/now.   We, as humans, know what has to be done, 
> it is to live and live fully, completely in the moment...
> we are walking on parallel pathways, and it's always empowering to see others 
> giving attention to life, not to analysis...
> jh
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