I think that the most significant shift is the intersection between the new media and Obama. I do not mean his election itself, but his campaign that became a symbol for a changing terrain.
Obama’s campaign surfaced what was already in play. It uncovered race relations in the United States and the status of leadership within black communities. The campaign symbolized the changing of the guard from the old civil rights establishment in the black community to a generation of black people who benefited from the civil rights revolution in the US. Obama represents this new black middle class that came up from the achievements of the civil rights establishment, but with a different worldview.
His campaign also symbolized a growing coalition. It brought together different segments of society suffering under the Bush Regime and the stolen election. There has always been talk of the “net-roots”, mostly the white middle class who had careers in silicon valley and became politically active through both the Bush’s stolen election and the falling economy. The anti-Bush stuff was their reaction to it. Obama’s campaign brought those folks, black people and young communities of color a new leadership.
His leadership brought a lot of things to the surface: it’s not the 60s anymore. People from the 60s took for granted that post-WWII, all the imperialist nations economies were weakened. That opened space for communist and revolutionary forces to start having liberation. We have gone through a process now where a lot of people who thought that this was the solution are now stale. We are coming up in the world now, where we have to deal with this. We do not have revolutions jumping off in front of us everyday. The socialist project, in the eyes of many worldwide, has been discredited. The old model does not work.
We are coming out asking what are the new solutions? We are in a stage of experimentation.
There is all this rave about new media, but the key thing about it is its democratic nature. Old media was built for “from one to many” and in new media its about “from many to many”. A large scale or numbers of people can communicate with each other much more easily than in the post. We think about in Karl Marx’s time, it took weeks or months to get the word about something from one country to the next (Us to Europe). Now, no matter where you are there are so many communications devices so that is instantaneous. Time has effectively shrunk. What does that mean for us? How does this change human beings? I think we are just in the middle of this. The new media was produced by capitalism, the main mode of production. The left has not comprehended how to change society and use new media as a liberatory project and not something that just seeks to make a profit.
During the immigrant marches that re-sparked May Day in the US a few years ago, a lot of young Latino folks were using MySpace.com to organize spontaneous walkouts on mass scales. People find difficulty in organizing people in this day and age and yet you have all these examples of people self-organizing. People are using new media technology but in a very organic way because new media has become such a part of their life.
Can we communicate our stories effectively to people? Which of youtube, myspace, Facebook all these social networking and peer to peer networks can we use to communicate more effectively our reasoning and our thoughts and make it a priority to expand the left as we know it.
New communication and new media allow us to share stories and deliver our narrative and which challenges the current hegemonic order and create counter-hegemony, as discussed by Antonio Gramsci.
There are a number of new opportunities for organizing presented by the new Obama administration and the economic crisis. What are the key interventions that the community organizing sector should make in this moment? Are there particular contributions that left organizers should make in this process?
The key interventions right now should be:
FOLLOW OBAMA. What is the most progressive out of what he is doing, even if its limited. What are the loopholes where we can intervene? Personally, I’ve been following Obama’s approach to service. In the US, we do not have a clear national identity. In just about every other country there is a full national identity. In what Obama refers to in his speeches, he seems to think that service is one way we can start to develop that national identity. In a lot of ways, this is like nation-building. (And people can argue with me on this!) Service is an easy way to get people involved in organizing. They are one step away. A person involved in service obviously cares about an issue or cause and is willing to do service around it. This is not that far from connecting them to Mao’s line on mass line and “serve the people” and connect that sentiment to organizing projects. Obama has set up a government site for service to connect service projects nationwide. I am trying to get people to connect into this as a means of recruiting new, young people. We can connect them to organizing in general, as well as to the Left. Its an open opportunity, an experiment.
WE NEED TO CREATE NEW MAJORITIES. There is no Left in this country. When I say there is no Left is this country, there is no phenomenon or force that has impact on a societal scale and identifies with principles we call “left”. There is nothing like that exists like that here, much less a large section of society that abide by these principles. There are only a few scattered individuals in reality. There maybe more people who can benefit from this, but are not aware or are caught up in their lives. We need to grow our forces in general as well as grow the left. We need to think about how to do this in the US context. We need to build new majorities. We can learn some things from the Obama campaign. Obama created a new “we” – a new force, call it a coalition or alliance. He created a new foundation of people, who in many cases were not active. My mother is from Barbados and recently got her citizenship. She’s been in the country since 1968. She voted for the first time, not just because he was black. It obviously excited her, but there was an excitement to vote. His campaign made people feel they were part of something bigger, part of a movement. We talk about this, but he did it on such a massive scale. What can we learn from this? How can we build a left? How can we build new majority? In what ways to storytelling, new media, and technology intersect with that?
USE NEW MEDIA TO AMPLIFY WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE MOVING. What are the key projects we are engaging in? What are the political projects we are engaging in? Organizing projects? How can we see these media tools and technologies as amplifying or adding to what we are already doing? In my studies, I find that these technologies do not create social networks. They only amplify connections that are real or networks that already exist. Offline, we should learn how to build day-to-day connections to everyday working people. How do we build social networks with people? I am not saying anything new. Churches, mosques, etc already do this. They are deeply entrenched in people’s lives. How do we translate this in a secular sense of the left. Also, there is a religious left and (how do we) translate this into a emanicipatory project. These tools are only helpful if they are amplifying something that is already real. How does developing relationships affect people’s connection to ideas? There is a quote from Amilcar Cabral – people do not fight for ideas in the sky, they fight for real things. They fight for real, material things. It does not matter if you come talking about “revolution etc. etc.” but the question is “how will I feed my family? Find work? Life a sustainable life?”
RE-ENGINEER DIRECT ACTION. There are actions around the world where people use GPS and Google Maps that helps decentralize the power that the state has. So many of these things, funny enough, that capitalism developed we can now leverage to use again elite power.
What are old strategies that our sector should turn away from? Which new tools and ideas are you now experimenting with?
A lot of stuff is old now. First of all, there is something about Left culture where we are quick to polarize; where in some cases, it may not be the case. You definitely want to polarize you and your allies from the elite powers that be. The Left has taken this to be cannibalistic towards itself. One small difference within different sects of the Left is polarized – we set a pole, only one of us can be right, and we battle to the death. It has helped kick-in sectarianism. We need to relook at how to have serious political debates and disagreements and not be at war with each other. We can co-exist with different ideologies within the left. The truth will come out in practice. In my organizing work, it was not a concern to me what someone’s ideology to me. At least it was not my primary concerns (we are progressive, revolutionary, etc.) , but when we finally put stuff in practice and we see what works and what does not. Ideology cannot be primary. I am not saying it is not important. But that cannot be the only factor – how can we negotiate, debate and struggle together?
Second, we cannot continue newspaper selling. A lot of sectarian groups call themselves Left but do not represent Left forces. They are very alienating to everyday people. They develop a culture of talking down to people. We are “above and away from the masses.” “We come down and bring you the truth.” This needs to stop.
There is outside knowledge as well as people’s knowledge from their everyday experience (Paolo Friere approach). We need to combine the two. Instead, I think you see one or the other. That there is only people’s everyday experiencial knowledge and you cannot go beyond that or there is only this outside knowledge and we need to bring them the truth. There has to be a combination, a dialectic, and come to a real emancipatory project.
Third, a lot of the tactics we use have gotten old, like marching and so on.We need understand the current conditions and which tactics and strategies need to flow from our analysis of current conditions. We have a lazy period of non-studying or non-analysis studying and we are relying on a lot of tactics from the past. We are stuck in the 60s. The civil rights establishment is stuck in the 60s and the left is stuck in the 60s in this country. We are not recognizing in front of our face what is new, what is different. How do we move forward, study it, move on, and make an assessment and concretize some gains? We rely on a march or a protest, and people do not come out to that. What will pull people out? What do people connect to? At one point, marching was new and came out of new conditions. It was part of the Industrial Revolution where people were coming into cities. There could be a debate now – should we leverage gains from the state or build alternatives? Or a combination of both? This depends on the objective conditions.
Finally, we need some serious study. The left is lazy and does not engage in study. There are pockets of people trying to do that now. This project itself is an attempt to do that.
What is inspiring you these days?
Two things are inspiring me right now. They may not be typical of the left – or at least at first glance, they do not appear to be “left.”
THE ARTIST MIA: If you read her interviews, she talks about how people cannot define her genre. The reality is, she’s produced her own genre. She talks about her experience growing up in a third world country, but more growing up in refugee camps. And then, she talks about moving to the first world and having to live and cope with all this hybridity. Through technology and new media, the world is really connected. When you are an immigrant or refugee, you are at the intersection of this. She wanted to find a way through her music, through her art, to connect. The world is not longer in these distinct silos. This fact really comes out in her music. When you are an immigrant kid, she talks about how, “you do not know what is cool.” You might rock a Michael Jackson t-shirt and some stone-washed jeans. You are this mismatch of things, these excesses of the first-world that get dumped on the third-world. Through mass media, for the most part, the first world used to produce what is “cool”. But with everything as connected as it is now, everyone is sharing. Third world, refugee kids are producing what is up. Her music and message reflect this. Some of her lyrics have revolutionary content. But often people complain that all of her music is not revolutionary, that sometimes it is just about dancing or sometimes too difficult to follow what she is saying! But what I have learnt from her is that we have been transfixed on narrow concept of political art. Some of us believe that when there is a revolutionary era, then all songs will have revolutionary lyrics, quoting from the Communist Manifesto. But is this what moves people? Maybe you can have a song, where they lyrics talk about dancing and partying, but the feeling and effect of the song is more revolutionary. Can a song make people feel something or bring change in people’s lives? Though her lyrics are often political, her fans concentrate on how she blends sounds from Aborigine people in Australia, to folks in Sri Lanka to folks in Jamaica. The sounds come together and become a way to connect people around the world. The song could be about dancing, but people recognize the sounds and start connecting to one another. It makes me think about how are we, as the Left, connecting people? It makes me question how we think about culture, music and what we think is revolutionary.
THE DANCE CREW CRAZE: Dance crews have popped up in the US as well as internationally. Sean Paul came up at the same time that new dances came out in Jamaica. These spread across the Caribbean and through the Diaspora spread to the US, UK and around the world. At the same time, there are dances that come up in hip-hop songs. But the hip-hop artists are not making them up. They are going to the hood where kids are doing this organically in LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit and Harlem. This is very self-organized and organic. What’s amazing is that these kids now have jobs. They are now artists, they teach dances, they tour, and they perform in videos. They are part of the industry now. This is happening in an era where people really question the potential of these young kids. Statistically, the prison population goes up for young black children and unemployment rises for young black men. And yet, these young black kids are creating jobs for themselves. Robin D. G. Kelly talks about people creating jobs out of play. Work out of play. All of these groups organize themselves, dance and have created an international network of dancers. I like looking at the self-organization of the under-class, if you can call them that. The working class is self-organizing through culture. How can we tap into this as a model and help them reach their full, emancipatory potential?
Any closing thoughts?
A lot of what I have been discussing can be traced back to Gramsci. It’s all about hegemony. In the US, we live in an advanced capitalist society. We cannot use pure force to effect change. Therefore, the question becomes: How are we going to have a revolution here? How do we create counter-hegemonic culture?
We need to be more effective in telling our stories and understand how stories affect people. How does the left design a left narrative? This was the key thing that Obama figure out. After Bush, the country was divided.
Sometimes we are closer to crisis than we realize. Elites in this country have an understanding of how close we are to crisis, more than we. Maybe some feared another civil war given the country is so divided on so many issues. Obama was concerned about division. To get elected, he needs a 51% majority. For this to possible, he needed to build unity. He used a story, he retold the narrative of the US to build the unity he needed to win.
His new narrative: The US is an unfinished project. He asked people to look at the founding fathers, and then the civil war. He marveled at US innovation and reminded us all that we are lucky to be here. He took some truths of American mythology and created new myths with a more progressive feature.
The question for us is: Can we do this? Can we create a left myth that is more revolutionary?