The Vision Thing
"This conference is not like other conferences."
That's what all the speakers at "Re-Imagining Politics and Society" were told before we arrived at New York's Riverside Church. When we addressed the delegates (there were about 1,000, over three days in May), we were to try to solve a very specific problem: the lack of "unity of vision and strategy" guiding the movement against global corporatism.
This was a very serious problem, we were advised. The young activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization and to Washington, DC, to protest the World Bank and the IMF had been getting hammered in the press as tree-wearing, lamb-costumed, drumbeating bubble brains. Our mission, according to the conference organizers at the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, was to whip that chaos on the streets into some kind of structured, media-friendly shape. This wasn't just another talk shop. We were going to "give birth to a unified movement for holistic social, economic and political change."
As I slipped in and out of lecture rooms, soaking up vision galore from Arianna Huffington, Michael Lerner, David Korten and Cornel West, I was struck by the futility of this entire well-meaning exercise. Even if we did manage to come up with a ten-point plan--brilliant in its clarity, elegant in its coherence, unified in its outlook--to whom, exactly, would we hand down these commandments? The anticorporate protest movement that came to world attention on the streets of Seattle last November is not united by a political party or a national network with a head office, annual elections and subordinate cells and locals. It is shaped by the ideas of individual organizers and intellectuals, but doesn't defer to any of them as leaders. In this amorphous context, the ideas and plans being hatched at the Riverside Church weren't irrelevant exactly, they just weren't important in the way they clearly hoped to be. Rather than changing the world, they were destined to be swept up and tossed around in the tidal wave of information--web diaries, NGO manifestoes, academic papers, homemade videos, cris de coeur--that the global anticorporate network produces and consumes each and every day.
This is the flip side of the persistent criticism that the kids on the street lack clear leadership--they lack clear followers too. To those searching for replicas of the sixties, this absence makes the anticorporate movement appear infuriatingly impassive: Evidently, these people are so disorganized they can't even get it together to respond to perfectly well-organized efforts to organize them. These are MTV-weaned activists, you can practically hear the old guard saying: scattered, nonlinear, no focus.
It's easy to be persuaded by these critiques. If there is one thing on which the left and right agree, it is the value of a clear, well-structured ideological argument. But maybe it's not quite so simple. Maybe the protests in Seattle and Washington look unfocused because they were not demonstrations of one movement at all but rather convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights trained on a specific multinational corporation (like Nike), a particular industry (like agribusiness) or a new trade initiative (like the Free Trade Area of the Americas). These smaller, targeted movements are clearly part of a common cause: They share a belief that the disparate problems with which they are wrestling all derive from global deregulation, an agenda that is concentrating power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Of course, there are disagreements--about the role of the nation-state, about whether capitalism is redeemable, about the speed with which change should occur. But within most of these miniature movements, there is an emerging consensus that building community-based decision-making power--whether through unions, neighborhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government--is essential to countering the might of multinational corporations.
Despite this common ground, these campaigns have not coalesced into a single movement. Rather, they are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as "hotlinks" connect their websites on the Internet. This analogy is more than coincidental and is in fact key to understanding the changing nature of political organizing. Although many have observed that the recent mass protests would have been impossible without the Internet, what has been overlooked is how the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. Thanks to the Net, mobilizations are able to unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and labored manifestoes are fading into the background, replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information-swapping.
What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet--the Internet come to life.