/ Cory Doctorow / 5 am Sun, Jan 22 2017
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  • The Women's March and the Judean People's Front: After Occupy, after trumpism, a new networked politics

    The Women's March and the Judean People's Front: After Occupy, after trumpism, a new networked politics

    Doubtless you've laughed at the ideological war between the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea. I laughed along with you: having grown up in politics, I know firsthand about the enmities that fester between groups that should be allies -- groups whose differences can only be parsed after months of study, but who are seemingly more at odds with one another than their obvious political opponents on the "other side" of the debate.

    The traditional explanation for this is that the personality traits that lead people to politics -- their passion and outrage -- makes it hard for them to cooperate with one another. If you care enough about politics to be an activist, you're probably kind of hard to get along with.

    This explanation is incomplete, and the rise and rise of networked political movements, from the "Smart Mobs" of the dawn of the net-age to yesterday's Women's March (not to mention the Pepe-weaponizing goons of the alt right; the Sanders revolution; and the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon) points to another explanation, with another set of weaknesses and strengths.

    Let's start with what groups do. In 1937, Ronald Coase won the economics Nobel for The Nature of the Firm, which argues that individuals form groups to reduce "transaction costs" (the amount of work/money you have to spend to make sure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and not getting in each others' way). Coase says that the way that groups solve their coordination problems is every bit as important why they're solving those problems: the organizational models adopted by churches, criminal gangs, corporations, revolutionaries and corner shops are as significant as the purposes behind those models.

    Transaction costs are a huge drag on all human activity, and they're especially high for dissident political movements. A mainstream political movement gets access to all kinds of free coordination tools, from being legally permitted to open a storefront community center to having legislators in office with staffers, to getting favorable coverage in mass media, sending new supporters their way, which gives them more resources to devote to community centers and staffers and PR.

    Political oppositions have all kinds of costs that mainstream politics don't have to contend with: at the extreme end, dissidents have to hide their identities from one another lest one person be arrested and the rest of them "rolled up" by the police; what's more, new followers have to be willing to incur the potential risks of blacklisting, arrest, torture and execution. Even for less-imperiled oppositions, there's the risk of social censure for taking public stands outside the mainstream, reflexive dismissal or mockery in mass media, and the frustration of having to "waste" your time on routine tasks that the mainstream gets for free, like wheat-paste postering for a demonstration

    It's a lot easier to dabble in mainstream politics than it is to get involved in radical politics. It's easy to find a Democratic or Republican fundraiser or local committee meeting, easy to contribute some labor or cash to the cause, then disengage for a while. These mainstream events also involve a wide spectrum of views -- there are Reagan Republicans and Trump Republicans; Clinton Democrats and Sanders Democrats. While the sides don't get along all the time, they're less prone to splintering into mutually loathing People's Fronts of Judea and Judean People's Fronts.

    In terms of coordination costs, radical politics are a lot more expensive to get involved with. It's harder to discover the meetings, and just understanding the group's program probably requires quite a lot of mental work because radical politics don't enjoy the advantage of having a school system and press that continuously disseminate their worldview. There's a reason that the fundamental unit of Marxist politics is the "study group." You have to start with a relatively high level of commitment.

    In other words, in mainstream politics, supporters can casually date their political lives; in radical politics, you pretty much start off with a marriage proposal.

    This, I think, explains the People's Front of Judea conundrum of radical politics. When you're just dating, it doesn't matter if you don't find yourself out for an evening with someone you couldn't spend the rest of your life with. It may be enough that they are a good dancer or a fun conversationalist. But if you skip straight to marriage, then any irreconcilable difference is a deal-breaker. The reason two Marxists can't abide each other despite having differences so esoteric that they can only be appreciated after a month's careful reading is that they know that these differences can't be reconciled, and that, in a world of scarce followers who have to overcome significant barriers to join them, anyone who signs up for one flavor is virtually certain to never back the other. When the stakes are higher, the differences matter more.

    Which brings me to networked politics. Networks solve coordination costs. The cost of discovering a radical group has never been lower: combine search engines with anonymity tools with social media, and you have a way for people with extremely high-risk beliefs to discover one another, refine their views, attract more followers, and work together for their common aims. This is the force that gave rise to the pro-democratic "color revolutions," the Arab Spring movements; the Occupy Movement and Anonymous -- but also neofascist/hyper-nationalist movements; Al Qaeda; troll armies; and darknet pedophile rings.

    Lowering coordination costs confers a disproportionate benefit to radical and fringe groups, and has a much less significant effect on mainstream activities. That's because being in the mainstream means that you've already solved your coordination costs. When I was an anti-nuclear proliferation activist in Toronto in the 1980s, 98% of my job was figuring out how to pay for stamps, then address envelopes, then put the stamps on the envelopes -- the remaining 2% was the time I had left over to figure out what to print on the things I put inside the envelopes. By contrast, the share of resources used for coordination by organizations agitating for more nuclear weapons (NATO, NORAD, arms dealers) was a rounding error -- a line-item just below the coffee-and-doughnuts budget.

    When you make coordination costs lower, the people whose work is most constrained by coordination costs get the biggest benefit. Thus the era of networked politics has seen profound shift and significant achievements for political fringes. In the 2000s, the Smart Mobs took to the streets -- as in 2001, when the Philippines' People Power revolution used SMS-coordinated demonstrations to topple Joseph Estrada's corrupt regime.

    Through the decade, lower organization costs upended the political landscape. In 2004, Howard Dean went further than anyone had dared hope in a netroots-fuelled bid for the presidential nomination. In 2008, Obama used the netroots to parlay a message well outside the political mainstream into a technologically savvy presidency.

    But netroots movements have always been better at tearing down than building up. Popular Power got rid of Estrada, but didn't create the kind of lasting institutions that reformed the Philippines government -- that's why today the country is governed by a terrifying psychopath. Obama used the netroots to overcome the Bush legacy, but hit pause on the grubby street-level activists on day one in favor of a horse-trading, Chicago-Machine-style establishment politics where everything moved into the smoke-filled back rooms -- and was fatally undermined by the Tea Party, a right-wing netroots movement (with mainstream financial backing, of course) that was nearly as effective at opposing Obama as Obama's netroots had been at mobilizing against Bush. In Egypt, the netroots kicked out Mubarak -- something the traditionally organized opposition failed to do in 30 years -- but the country turned around and promptly elected an intolerant, authoritarian Islamist government that was then toppled in a military coup, leaving the country governed by murderers and torturers who are no more accountable than Mubarak was for his 30 year run.

    Occupy was an attempt to force Obama to govern from the netroots, and it went further than anyone could have imagined, but it did not push Obama to the left; nor did it create an alternative power structure that was powerful enough to overturn the Democratic establishment (yet) or win the 2016 elections.

    Which brings me to Donald Trump, and the Women's March. Trump is the first US leader to use the netroots to both tear down his opponent and then take power in the resulting vacuum. He is going to try to govern with his netroots, not just ride them to power. If he manages it, there will be lessons in it for every kind of radical political movement, regardless of orientation, because as Coase told us in '37, how you organize is every bit as important as why you organize.

    The Women's March is a political mirror image of Trump. One need only review the amazing, creative protest signage to appreciate the political spectrum spanned by the protesters. Like Occupy, the Women's March has articulated a very broad political agenda with something for everyone -- and also elements that its members might object to, but needn't sign up for in order to count themselves in. Like Occupy, the costs of discovering and participating in the Women's March are low, and like Occupy, the Women's March has used the net to spread around the world, finding solidarity with people distant from the immediate effects of trumpism, but who see their own struggles symbolically represented in the broad goals of the Women's March.

    Depending on how you view them, Trump supporters can lack political coherence: they want a militaristic strongman who promises to get America out of foreign wars; they want a free-market businessman who gives everyone single-payer healthcare; they want someone who'll drain the swamp by appointing a cabinet of political hacks and billionaires (sometimes these are the same people).

    Likewise, the resistance embodies many political contradictions: intersectionalism and class-based analysis; those who extol ACA and those who believe it is a gift to the insurance companies whose only virtue might have been to collapse in a way that paved the path for single-payer; those who overlook Obama's record on deportations, banks, drones and surveillance and those who say they make Obama (and Clinton) no better than Bush or Trump where it counts. Sanders and Clinton and all the spaces between them.

    The good news is that networked politics makes it possible for us all to march together. The good news is also that Trump will have a very hard time governing with his netroots, because winning is easy, governing is harder. The asymmetries that Trump rode to power now tilt towards his opponents -- and the realpolitik difficulties that hamstrung Trump's oppositions are now Trump's to navigate.

    The Women's March may be the defining moment of politics for the Facebook age, but it's also the latest refinement of opposition politics powered by networks. It has two decades of lessons to learn from, and a generation of activists who grew up inventing and refining the tools that brought it together. What it invents next will be shared by radical groups all around the world, on every side of the political spectrum, and it will also borrow the tactics of those groups all around the world. It signals "no more business as usual" every bit as much as Trump does.

    (Images: Bruce Sterling)

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