Yes, ladies and gents, it's time for the latest entry in the Grinder Dialogues, the ongoing (theoretically) weekly discussion on matters of technology, society and the future between myself and the dashing SCIENCE! scamps over at Grinding.
they have a lot of really valuable things to say, but how do you pitch radical self-reliance and removing yourself from a capitalist society, without pitching it as “us” vs. “them”. Especially in a case like this where the Government was all-too-willing to take on the role of “them”. (Screaming in the back of my head is the voice that used to work in marketing that says “getting arrested was the best thing for their cause” — and looking at the T9 inspired collectives springing up in their wake, I can’t disagree.)
I fervently don’t believe in “them versus us”, it’s useless outdated thinking. Everyone’s “them” is someone else’s “us”. But what I’ve never quite figured out is how to organize without the “other”.
An excellent question, and not an easy one. While the motto here is "There is No They," you're right. An "other" is necessary to organize. People aren't rational creatures, and an image to fight against — or fight for — gives a cause more strength than it might otherwise have.
However, it's important to make the "they" as narrow as possible, and the "Us" vast.
An example: the American civil rights movement often played up the most violent actions of racists in pushing for needed change. Not only did this serve to force the public to confront the ugliness of racism, it also served to make the "they" narrow, focusing on those doing the worst actions.
Someone who had been raised to believe in segregation would then see graphic evidence of a lynching or murder and think "shit, that's just wrong." They begin to doubt, especially as the civil rights leaders' rhetoric is talking about forgiveness and equality.
At first the segregationist just stops supporting their cause as actively. Then they sit out the fights entirely. Finally, as the racist core that remains gets more berserk, plenty become disgusted enough to convert to the cause they once opposed. While that's a generalization, it happened on a large enough scale to help drastically change attitudes and laws that once seemed unshakable.
A more specific example arises in Stetson Kennedy's undermining of the KKK. Kennedy made a "they" so compelling that even die-hard Klan members were embarrassed.
To use a more recent case, one factor that's given the Green Revolution some staying power in Iran is that the protesters have made the "They" narrow: the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei-Basij axis in the current regime. Narrowing that focus has allowed them to get allies: high-ranking clerics, some local police, business leaders, that would normally have sat by or even actively aided the crackdown.
There are ethical, humane reasons for "There is no They." There's also a tactical one: to do otherwise is a delusion that keeps a good cause from getting the infectiousness it needs to win.
And that's the problem with the Tarnac 9's manifesto, as well as a lot of the strains of thought it represents. As I was reading through The Coming Insurrection, the "theys" ended up being damn near everyone: the state, the police, environmental activists, human rights activists, scientists, workers, non-workers, mainstream culture, alt cultures, artists, your ego, your superego, Sigmund Freud and your neighbor's dog, the little shit.
The only part left over is a vague, contradictory call for "communes" formed of friends (unless you try to get too organized, then you're back on the "They" side).
Groups are imitating them, sure, and plenty more will, because they've ended up with a platform that basically boils down to "You and your friends v. the world." Does that sell? Sure, for the same reason Objectivism appeals to lonely adolescent types. As a model to actually get something accomplished, it will probably work out about as well as it did for the T9.
Of course, too, The Coming Insurrection is a god-send for the delusional status-quo types, because the grievances are so many, so militant and so vague that they have the perfect anti-Bible to trout out anytime someone tries to make a move in a better direction.
there are many groups who are certainly are thinking of new way to network and new ways to be heard and influence “the system”. Look at the ridiculous Tea-Bag events in the US, recently. A strange collation of conservative Christians, atheist Libertarians, hippie Ron Paul supporters and UN-fearing-militia-types all united in a mostly grassroots effort that encouraged major media support from, not just FOX but many major outlets. What do all of those groups have in common? They all see themselves as an oppressed minority in the face of a relentless “socialist” overculture. In their eyes, they are the alt culture, and they are more than happy to have an oppressive “them” to rail against.
Do I think that the Tea-Baggers claims and demands were ridiculous? Yeah, but they were effective.
Really? They got attention, but right now it seems like Blue Dog Democrats are playing a far more influential role in halting or wringing concessions out of the health care process than the Tea Parties. Andrew Sullivan's got an interesting take on it, and points to the fact that the "They" for that particular movement seems to be getting pretty damn large: hence the very visceral anger over what's an important but pretty wonkish topic.
That rage may give them some attention, but without a radical shift it hardly seems likely that their cause will spread much beyond the conservative base: there are too many distrusted "theys" out there.
Getting back to your original question, I don't think it's possible to successfully pitch separating yourself from capitalist society or the T9 brand of radical self-reliance, period. All societies are capitalist (and socialist) to some degree. By its very nature separatism tends towards the sort of vast "us v. the world" trap makes it pretty unappealing to most of society. Better to infect. There's so many wonderful possibilities and tools here.
Speaking of tools:
All futures are born facing the lash.
In my mind, the only way to cope with that is to take new technologies (or in my particular pet-project, old technologies that were discarded in Western Society) and open them up. Make art with them, break them, inject them, repurpose them, break them again and fuck them. Because I know of no other way to take these things - every one of them a loaded gun - and to show people that there is another way.
Because every new future already has one hand in shackles.
Touché. And well said. That's an excellent start.
A renaissance begins because enough people are trying desperately to generate solutions to the problems of the old, crumbling status quo. While plenty of those solutions go nowhere, the sheer intellectual ferment does help to jump-start something truly new. Technology is certainly no exception.
However, as you say, all futures are born facing the lash, because humans will continue to be humans. Our messy power struggles aren't going away, and technology won't make them obsolete. That's where it becomes important to apply all those new tools. It's important not just to show people there's another way, but to find out what the hell that way might be -- and apply it.
Which brings me to this:
In other words, I don’t know if the other Grinders agree with me, but I think that every new piece of tech has destabilizing and calcifying potential. Me? I want to see these things actually used to help create new social structures that allow humans to get on with the business of being better humans.
Exactly. Mixing, injecting, breaking, repurposing and fucking is great, but the next step is to take the results of that, pick a problem and start swinging. Take a social tech and figure out how to really make it sing in the hands of a local political group that's fighting the good fight. That was my point earlier, and in the lines above, I think it's yours too (feel free to tell me if I'm wrong on that).
That's why the "End of Politics" stuff frustrates me so. Technology is a powerful force and understanding it a rare talent. Hell, it's certainly not one of my skills. Yet it seems that too often many technophiles yearn for a total transformation or end to the mess of politics and until that mythical day comes, keep it at arms length. By doing so, they often take themselves out of discussions and fights where that perspective could be a massive boon.
Embracing and seeking to understand the messiness of human society — the same nature that uses technology for both oppression and liberation — has to happen before we have a way out of this mess or any other.
Importantly, that's also necessary to play a role in how those technologies get used, something that's often determined by society and culture. A look at the picture at the top of this post, with smokestacks happily chugging into the 19th century sky, should serve as a reminder that today's ignored consequences will be tomorrow's dangers.
That's why political fights need to be tackled head on, instead of just assuming this will all sort itself out. That's how better social structures get built: bit by bloody bit.
Moldova's Twitter Revolution resulted in a brief, ad-hoc surge of anger with little staying power. Meanwhile, Iran's has used painstakingly developed female social networks, inside connections, old fashioned guerrilla attacks and new technology. It too may fail — most rebellions do simply because the odds are steep — but that movement has shaken its society to the core because tools weren't the only weapon. Wisely, it had low or no-tech weapons too.
Tools, no matter how great their potential, are simply objects, nothing more. It is our minds, our hands and our lives that give them any other meaning. The weapon only matters if you know where to strike.