The Fulcrum of the Present Crisis: Some Thoughts on Revolutionary Strategy
The Cult of Mass, Lionization of Protest Culture & Other Industrial Age Holdovers
Protest Culture. The so-called “cargo cults” of New Guinea, Micronesia and Melanesia evolved in response to the influx of American manufactured goods during World War II. Native islanders identified the goods – at least in the received version of the story – not with any material process of production in the countries it came from, but with the proliferation of air bases and air fields in their own countries. The cargo cults, accordingly, operated on the principle of sympathetic magic to stimulate the further delivery of Western manufactured goods by building airplanes and air control centers out of woven bamboo.
Richard Feynman later applied this phenomenon, by analogy, to what he called “cargo cult science.” Cargo cult science equates “science” to incidental features of science like test tubes and lab coats, with no understanding of what constitutes real science: the experimental method.
More generally, a “cargo cult” in any field of human endeavor is an attempt to generate a social phenomenon by replicating all the incidents and stage props commonly identified with it in the public mind.
There’s a danger, in a period of upheavals like the Arab Spring, Occupy, M15, Syntagma, and subsequent networked movements, of our being led astray by a revolutionary cargo cult. The danger is that we will identify “revolution” with incidental things like demonstrations, barricades, slogans and posters.
But none of these things, individually or taken together – no matter how important each may be – is revolution as such. We can have all these things and still, if we lack a proper understanding of the true nature of the crisis of this system, in effect be attempting to create a new society by weaving a revolution from strips of bamboo.
Mass and Scale. Many on the establishment Left – not to mention centrist liberals – have criticized horizontalist movements like Occupy for lacking conventional signifiers of legitimacy like leaders and official demands. And on a more fundamental level, the very model of networked organization itself came under attack.
Decentralized networks are useless, Evgeny Morozov says, because they lack the mass and scale for taking over existing institutions.
Without well-organized, centralized, and hierarchical structures to push back against entrenched interests, attempts to make politics more participatory might stall, and further disempower the weak, and coopt members of the opposition into weak and toothless political settings. This was the case before the Internet, and, most likely, it will be the case long after.
And Malcolm Gladwell considers them pernicious not only because of the lack of mass and centralized coordination but because, unlike activist movements like the legacy Civil Rights movement, they involve only “weak ties.” Weak ties “seldom lead to high-risk activism”: “Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”
The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority….
This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
A certain kind of verticalist is as fond of pulling out Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” as a certain kind of right-libertarian is of pulling out Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” Although Freeman’s essay is commonly drawn on today as a critique of consensus process, David Graeber argues that consensus process was in fact developed in response to the problems she described (i.e. informal cliques emerging, controlling information and setting agendas, as feminist groups grew to over twenty people or so).
…almost everyone who is not emerging from an explicitly anti-authoritarian position… completely misread Freeman’s essay, and interpret it not as a plea for formal mechanisms to ensure equality, but as a plea for more transparent hierarchy. Leninists are notorious for this sort of thing, but Liberals are just as bad…. First, Freeman’s argument about the formation of cliques and invisible power structures is taken as an argument that any group of over twenty people will always have to have cliques, power structures, and people in authority. The next step is to insist that if you want to minimize the power of such cliques, or any deleterious effects those power structures might have, the only way to do so is to institutionalize them: to take the de facto cabal and turn them into a central committee…. One needs to get power out of the shadows—to formalize the process, make up rules, hold elections, specify exactly what the cabal is allowed to do and what it is not. In this way, at least, power will be made transparent and “accountable.”….
From a practical, activist perspective, this prescription is obviously ridiculous. It is far easier to limit the degree to which informal cliques can wield effective power by granting them no formal status at all, and therefore no legitimacy; whatever “formal accountability structures” it is imagined will contain the cliques-now-turned-committees can only be far less effective in this regard, not least because they end up legitimating and hence massively increasing the differential access to information which allows some in otherwise egalitarian groups to have greater power to begin with…. [S]tructures of transparently inevitably… begin to become structures of stupidity as soon as that takes place.
An Alternative Approach … [Read the rest of Carson’s Study via PDF]