Given it is at least as necessary a link in the chain that brings people from geographically disenfranschised areas like New York City to where electoral activism actually matters as social software tools, I demand more respect for the bus as a medium for political participation.
Like the telephone and the postal system, the bus is such a mundane medium for political participation that it is easy to forget how it and other technologies of everyday life are integral to much political activism. Like voting machines, they become visible only when they are not working or missing—when activists are waiting for the bus that just does not come, when the organizer can’t get reception, when someone has forgotten to buy the envelopes for those direct mail letters.
We tend to discuss the relationship between technology and politics in terms of the most recent additions to our arsenals, but the clipboards, signs, and–well–busses, are necessary too. New forms of organizing are extensions and rearrangements of elements, many of whom are old and familiar. Anyone who has spent anytime in any campaign knows how paralyzing it is when the mundane technologies go missing. Smaller campaigns would probably loose more of their punch if their bus crashed than if their facebook group went dead.
I’m busy doing research on political participation these days, and much of it is confidential, so I have had little time to write here. I maintain the site more as an online business card, and hope to get back to actually writing here when time and circumstances permit.
Sorry, foregive a little bit of shameless self-promotion, but a book I co-edited is finally out.
It is a set of essays about the good books that inspired good social scientists. Contributors include B. Guy Peters, Chantal Mouffe, Elinor Ostrom, James M. Buchanan, Joseph H.H. Weiler, Kenneth Waltz, Richard Katz, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen.
Some people like it [read blurps below]
There is a lot of buzz around the idea that technology-enhanced party activists are increasingly important in electoral politics. Zack Exley’s an interesting piece on field organizing in the Obama campaign is just one example.
In one sense, this is a no-brainer. Of course, more activists on the streets are better than fewer. Of course, the proliferation of off-the-shelf web 2.0 solutions has changed the costs of mobilizing.
Another potential question is, however, looming behind the potential new dawn for party political participation. Will those who get involved continue to accept that they are simply foot soldiers acting out a battle plan largely designed in a traditional campaign war room? Or will they, like contemporary net roots and traditional (European) party members, insist on getting influence on actual policy development?
If they do demand influence, will they (a) become a liability for campaigns that also have to address potential voters outside of the core constutiency that presumably provides most of their activists? (b) complicate attempts to stay ’on message’ in relation to traditional mass media? (c) be able to make a policy difference? In other words, will they still be worthwhile for campaigns?
Perhaps more importantly, can they achieve influence? There seems to be considerable transatlantic differences here, where influence in Europe is based on party organization, in the US, it comes mainly in the selection of candidates in primaries (Ned Lamont vs. Joe Lieberman springs to mind).
These issues are negotiated in the daily balance struck between candidates, professionals, and activists who presumably all want to win, make a difference, and do something worthwhile. Though they may not always agree and what those three things amount to.
Together with some colleagues, I’ve started a blog for all those NYC-based people out there who are just desperate to participate in some serious communications research… gentlepeople, let me introduce to you: collective communications campus (ccc).
Two Danish scholars, Klaus Bruhn Jensen & Rasmus Helles, have analyzed a wide sample of websites from NGOs, political parties, private businesses, state agencies, and individuals across several countries, both high-, mid- and low-income.
They report several interesting findings.
1) The participatory potential of websites is more limited than what is often assumed. In effect: ‘so much for participatory culture’.
2) Both political parties and NGOs have relatively high interactive potentials, while state agencies and companies have low, with much more emphasis on presentation. So much for ‘from markets to conversations’… And in other words: the entry-points to participation in anything but person-to-person interaction seems to remain the traditional political organizations and social movements.
The text is available here.
Monday the 30th of July, Mirjana Mirosavljevic of the Reconstruction Women’s Fund generously spend an hour explaining to me her view of the intricacies of civil society participation in a Serbia undergoing a difficult political and economic transition.
One particularly interesting thing for me was RWfund’s deliberate attempt to work as a sort of meta-organization, focused on the development of other NGO’s, the strengthening of networks between them, and the training of activists. They raise money from international foundations like George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the Rockerfeller Brothers Fund, donors that smaller, local organizations are unlikely to reach, and work to increase awareness of the issue of women’s rights in Serbia, and Serbian women’s rights amongst internationals working in Serbia.
Also, she pointed out the increasing importance of the Serbian Orthodox Church (though not in a direction that she and her organization appreciates) in a country experiencing a sort of simultaneous relative implosion of both state politics and the kind of civil society politics that contributed to the regime change of 2000. In this kind of ‘vacuum’, there is a room for those with resources, and the church has both money (from remittances) and people, both as actors in their own right, and, I would deduce, as its own kind of meta-organizers for movements with a quite different agenda. There are some clear parallels here, it seems to me, to the role of the church in many other transitional political situations.
Mirosavljevic readily admitted the challenges involved for an organization like RWfund, not only from the immediate political circumstances they operate in, but also from the strategy they have chosen and the practical paths they pursue. Follow the money here. Being mainly dependent on foreign, and predominantly U.S., funding in a country where the ruins left by the NATO airial strikes from 1999 remain very visible is not a PR boon. But resources obviously has to be found if the work is to continue–like the media I also like to write about, activism is far from free, even if it is voluntary, and both foreign funds and domestic enthusiasm has on many areas been on the wane, especially since the assassination of Zoran Djindjić in 2003 and the relative lack of political improvements since. It takes not only romantic dedication, but also cool cash, to try to match the inertia of the world and whatever forces one’s political opponents marshal. Listening to her stories of attempts to work one’s way through international bureaucracy and lack of government recognition of local expertise and even the legitimacy of activism, I can only respect the work done here to attempt to build and maintain a basis infrastructure of participation.
– – – Nerdy Note – – –
After the talk, I had occasion to re-read Karl Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’. It remains for me an interesting point of reference here, not because I agree with it, but because it so mercilessly probes some of the limits of liberal rights and pluralist struggles for freedom, such as the struggle for women’s rights. Marx’s overall argument is that no minority can seriously pursue freedom on its own, as a minority, but only as part of a majority coalition aiming to transform the social order that made them an unfree minority in the first place. But of course, paroles ‘first class struggle, then gender struggle’ and the like proved to be quite a dead-end.