Shawn Ewald: What do we do now?
We have to want to win. It sounds obvious, but it's really not. The left generally does not behave as if it wants to win. Whether it's anarchists who think that organizing into small social cliques and doing whatever you feel like doing is going to change anything at all, or it's radicals of any stripe who think street battles with cops make a difference, or it's liberals who cling pathetically to the Democratic party, or it's people who think standing in the street and holding signs will stop a war, all of us may think we want to win, but our actions tell a different story. We have all unconsciously resigned ourselves to having low expectations. We all have accepted the constraints of simple rebellion, of mere dissent, of harmless objection. The left as a whole is gripped by a culture of impotence. We talk, we complain, we rave, we rage, we snipe, but few of us build anything, we have grown so used to complaining that we don't know how to do anything else.
To be fair, that's not really my experience. In Halifax, the post-summithopping activism is very much about building--though it's off to a slow start. A biodiesel cooperative, a free school, an organizating advocating alternatives to corporate culture, a farm: these are things that were decided upon and started by people I knew well in my one year in Halifax. It should be noted that some of these things are in disrepair, due to key organizers heading off to various corners of the globe, but I think most of projects will come to fruition in the mid- to long-term.
I don't have enough of an impression of Montreal to know what the dynamic is, but one factor that is different is that the activist population is much, much larger than that in Halifax. I'd venture that this inherently enables a level of insularity that might not be automatic in other cities. But there is also a lot of inter-group cooperation.
The thing that interests me the most right now is the lack of a winning strategy. I was talking to Justin Podur about this the other day. Here's how he characterized the conversation:
Today I spent some time with Dru from The Dominion talking about the Canadian media landscape and dreaming about media institutions that could have wide enough reach to be able to change the terms of the debate, and about political organizations with a strategy. That's about as far as we got, though.The looming question for me was "what is our strategy", and what our the goals that we are building it around? Put more assertively: we need to be able to imagine how to win, if we're ever going to.
Justin gave a good talk on this a while ago:
We are smart enough to understand that sedate protests with no trajectory represent no threat and are therefore ineffective. But we seem to think that small, militant protests with no trajectory are somehow better. We seem to think that police repression at militant demonstrations is good for the politicizing effect it has on the demonstrators who get repressed and lose confidence in the state. The scenario for social change seems to be an escalating cycle of protest and repression leading ultimately to state collapse. Again I have to say that I think that if that were to happen the result would be tragedy, and not only for ourselves. Given the state of our organization, the state of the forces of repression, the political consciousness of the population, the control of the media by the other side – the result would be a nightmare. I realize you could argue that the present is a nightmare – but that doesn’t give us license to act in ways that would make things worse, and things can get better or worse from here.
I am saying that what we should really admire about movements in other places is that they understand their own context and act accordingly. We can’t say the same. Even our slogans betray us. “Become the Resistance inside Fortress North America” – this being a reference to the Iraqi resistance. “Globalize the Intifada” – this being a reference to the Palestinians. Again, on one level this is a statement of solidarity with people who are being demonized in mainstream culture and on that level it is very positive. But on another level it’s pompous. It’s embarrassing. What can we show them? Some small demonstrations with the same people showing up over and over. Some small groups where the members distrust and dislike each other. Some ‘coalitions’ of half a dozen people. Some ‘spaces’ booked on university campuses. Chavez in Venezuela had a strategy: create a party, win the elections, use referenda to pass constitutional changes, use the government to help movements solve problems in their communities, increase community control over the government. What is our equivalent?
The short answer is that we don't have one. How does one gain real political momentum for anti-imperialist causes in a rich, white country that has everything to lose by undermining empire? That's not a question that has an easy answer, and no real precedent exists that I know of. So it's easy to see how activists turn in on themselves or fixate on organizing. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a strategy. Of course it will inevitably be flawed, but it'll be a starting point. But we're not there yet.
My tendency, in complex situations, is to look for what is obvious and simple, in the negative. The most obvious problem that stand in the way of widespread social change is disinformation.
Real progress cannot be made on policies towards oppressed people at home or abroad without access to accurate information about what is going on. If people don't know about the crimes comitted in their name, they will be extremely unlikely to do anything about them.
People get most of their information from the media. This is doubly the case when one refers to international affairs.
Another premise: plain old information can (but won't necessarily) have political effect in Canada. It can be argued that this is the case here more than elsewhere (where other forms of power are more prevalent). Naturally, the mechanisms of broadcasting information are both coveted and closely guarded by their owners.
So the plan is simple: build an infrastructure that can deliver accurate information to a significant percentage of the Canadian population.
How to do this? Hard to say. There are some precedents, there are some possibilities. The point is to have a goal, and start work.
Since we started the Dominion almost two years ago, my conception of who is out there and what is possible is unrecognizably different from at the outset. I've met with dozens of people across the country and learned a whole lot about what is possible and what is needed. I still don't have a clue how, exactly to do it, but I have an idea that I (and others) might figure it out sometime in the future, if we keep doing what we're doing.
Another way of looking at it is that I've been gathering a list of the "raw materials" out of which media revolution might be fashioned. There are dozens of publications and groups out there. If they could work together, they would be a lot more powerful.
The problem right now, I think, is that these hundreds (thousands?) of people are occupied with the day to day work of publishing, broadcasting, or just keeping things going. There isn't really an occasion for collectively strategizing. I think there should be. I just haven't figured out what it is yet. And as far as I know, neither has anyone else.
How to build something new, without the obvious pitfalls of centralization (i.e. the iron law of oligarchy)?
Again, difficult to say. Again, something interesting will emerge if we work at it with even a vague idea in mind.
My current (vague) vision for the Dominion is of a widely-distributed print publication that exists in interdependent relationship with an entire ecosystem of independent media. It relies on the grassroots for information gathering and stories, and it polishes them into an engaging, non-moralizing, and easy-to read format, while reporting on what grassroots groups do with the information (whether it is marches, sit ins, or creating new institutions).
[additions, added April 7:]
That is to say, media of some kind is going to play a huge role in progressive social change, if it ever comes about.
The immediate problems we face in the creation of media that will play such a role are numerous but relatively simple:
- make it decentralized enough to be impossible to coopt
- make it centralized enough to keep the quality consistent and logistically reach the largest audience
- in addition to making it impossible to coopt, we must avoid becoming simply crushed
- make it self-renewing and self-replicating
To restate the whole thing in yet another way: if we want to gain popular support for arguments that aren't already popular (something the PR industry knows a bit about), there needs to be a compelling source of alternative information. Given the Canadian political status quo, it is difficult to see that happening without media.
Going out on a bit of a limb, I'd say that the creation of independent media needs to be everyone's first priority. Without it, we concede defeat--now, or later on.
Further out on the same limb, I would say that we need to collectively develop ways of communicating with and challenging the public that do not alienate them. We have the added burden of being accurate and truthful, instead of becoming PR firms in everything but content (and thus eventually in content too).
Ok, I'm rambling, but there will be more (and more focused) writing to come on this theme.
I just got back from Wakefield, Québec, and I also recently acquired a digital camera (thanks, parents!). So here's a sloppy attempt at a composite photo, a form that's a lot of fun and somehow more compelling than single shots.
My old friend Eli Amerson has a band called the Humans, and they just released album #2 (or is it #1? maybe the last one was a demo). Anyway, it's good stuff, and you can listen to the whole thing online. Their stuff is somewhere between Pearl Jam, the Traveling Wilburies, Springsteen and Tom Petty, but whatever. Go listen to the album. It's called Dear Machine,.