Politics Without Power III: Alliances, Research Time, 18/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . Another aspect of our typical thinking about politics – and really any kind of social organization to spark even the most minor change – needs some rethinking. That’s the idea that change is only effective if everybody in the movement is on the same page.

Think back to how I described an election campaign yesterday. If this is your model for political or social activism, then you’ll prioritize simplicity in your messaging and goals, and complete unity of purpose from the team. Everyone on the team shares the simple goal – get our candidate elected.

Antonio Negri, if you can't recognize him by now.
Which is fine for an election campaign, but virtually no other popular campaign can keep itself together when it demands that kind of uniformity. Antonio Negri digs a little deeper into the concept, seeing a strong trend in mainstream modern political thinking of presuming that any successful political action needs uniformity and authoritative direction.

The tension in this idea is between order and chaos. Chaos and breakdown constantly threaten every political movement, goes traditional thinking. People are so diverse and have so many different situations, positions, histories, priorities, and personalities, that only powerful, universally-respected authorities can organize people enough to get anything done.

The most recent example is when people think about why Occupy failed. Maybe I should write ‘failed’ instead, with mildly sarcastic quotation marks. So many people had so many different priorities and visions for how the new world would look and how people would live, that nothing actually got done.

I remember so many conversations in mainstream and even alternative (and definitely in comedy) media about how Occupiers spent all their time talking about ideas in assemblies and no time actually setting down concrete goals and getting everyone to sign on.

A bunch of crazy idealists who think they can change
the whole world by asking people.
All that time spent talking and thinking was considered time wasted in popular discourse. At least the discourse that dominated coverage of that movement and that time. Occupy activists were openly mocked as unrealistic neo-hippies for thinking you could transform society without the direction of a common plan or any authority enforcing unity in the movement.

So the volunteers defer to the campaign director, the directors defer to the strategists. But it isn’t how a lot of politics actually works.

Most political organizing works by building alliances. Alliances don’t have any central authority, no direction, and they don’t even need any unity or compacted agreement about having a single, clear purpose. 

Alliances are links between disparate, diverse groups of people who may – at most – have a common adversary or linked goal. But they may just be groups who are upset with the status quo and decide to build a new future together. It could be economic and industrial models. 

They might not have any idea what could result from their alliance. Only that it would be better than the way things are now. That a new model for society that all the diverse partners in an alliance would give everyone working toward it the space and possibilities that they want to thrive. 

An alliance is a networked relationship – there are no authorities, but a constantly negotiated relationship among equals. If you’re too immersed in the presumptions of old-fashioned Western* thinking about politics, you’ll believe that such a networked relationship can never be productive.

One of the left-wing habits that annoys me (and it's not
universal, just appears often enough to be annoying) is
presuming that any anti-Western or anti-colonial stance
is necessarily a liberatory one. That gets democracy
activists supporting Putin, Assad, or Xi because they
oppose global American power. I may write something
about the failure of global American power later.
* And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s only the Western tradition of political theory that relies so heavily on authority’s leadership. Political philosophy in the Confucian tradition – particularly the legalist school that developed from the thinking of Shang Yang, for example – conceives of politics entirely as a model of leadership, authority, and obedience. I don’t know Shang Yang’s philosophy all that well yet, but a lot of what I do know, I see in China’s current leader Xi Jinping.

Maybe the partners of an alliance are constantly wondering when the best time is to betray the other. Politics as game theory has a strong tradition. Maybe you just believe that political or social action without authority is inherently a violent mess of conflict. That just comes from reading Thomas Hobbes uncritically.

Maybe all you need to see that you don’t need authorities to maintain networked action is to think about your alliances the same way you do about your friendships. You don’t necessarily have any common goals. There’s no one telling you that you have to be friends. It’s a relationship that you put some work into to maintain, and you help each other out now and then.

Politics as the large-scale organization of friendship networks. How implausible does that sound?

No comments:

Post a Comment