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Barack Obama and the Internet for Activists Conference

An excerpt at Liberal Conspiracy from the Fabian book about Obama gives me the perfect opening to return to last Saturday’s conference, “Internet for Activists.” I was speaking at it, on a panel with one of Obama’s many net campaign managers, some anonymous chap from the anti-scientologist movement and an anti-deportation activist. My speech focussed on Liberal Conspiracy’s efforts as regards the defence of women’s rights during the HFE Bill debates, but in the course of my summation I also introduced a wider question about activists.

Surely, I thought, the sort of campaign that we individuals want is one built and run by, and accountable to, activists. I contrasted that vision to the reality of Obama’s election machine – though (inevitably) a dissenting view can be found from the Obama campaign manager who attended. Obama may have at one stage been an activist, but when he ran for President, he was a US Senator. Obama was actually backed by banks such as Goldman-Sachs to the tune of almost a million dollars – and they weren’t the only ones.

Wall Street executives “bundled” for Obama, throwing big events which were used to collect in staggering amounts of money. Names from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase can also be found on Obama’s list of donors – not to mention that several figures were tapped by the great man to help put together his administration. Because nothing says activist or accountable like investment bankers on the payroll. In this, the Democrats actually outdid the Republicans for a change – these companies gave more to Obama.

The book about Obama, and the wave of American political change he’s riding, misunderstands the relationship between activists and power. It discusses MoveOn.org as a group that linked up over common issues – and that’s great. It can exert pressure through the media, it can provide a forum for debate free from the jingoistic distortions of the Republicans and it can highlight information neglected by the mainstream – but only in the crudest way possible can sites like that hold any individual politician to account for the power they wield.

Say that in four years, America is mired still further in economic crisis and Obama hasn’t turned it around. A group like MoveOn.org could tell it like it is and provide these wonderful services which activists need, but that won’t mean a better Democrat in power – it’ll mean a Republican. Online campaigning and record levels of individual donations, even if these things are put to use through the ultimate individualisation – the Primary, will not have changed Obama’s record in office, the same way they didn’t stop the Iraq War or Clinton’s impeachment.

Our “Internet for Activists” conference didn’t discuss these things at all – I didn’t want to pick a fight when I was only there at someone else’s request, to tell a particular story about a particular campaign. I did, however, outline my basic view of praxis – in this case the interrelation between our online war of counter-contextualisation against the mainstream media, and our relationship with a specific political movement. It is the question of that relationship which is at issue when we talk of Obama as an activist.

To begin with, I need to define what political movement I’m talking about. My goal is to knit together a movement, potentially numbering in the millions, who will not just put individuals into government but will collectively redraw government from the ground up. This is the goal of every socialist revolutionary – what CLR James described as the Paris mob taking a hand. I feel justified in using my vision as paradigm here because Obama used a lot of rhetoric which is appropriate to such a notion of grassroots, collective politics.

Yet my goal is not the same as Obama’s goal. There are many things about Obama of which I approve, but he’s not interested in expanding the power of a grassroots, collective movement. People were invited to do their bit for him, whether via MyBO or the millions of dollars in individual online donations – but that’s not grassroots on the basis that between Obama and those people there is no real connection other than that they share some of his ideas. There is no accountability.

To respond that these people will have the chance to de-select Obama in four years is to ignore the nuance of politics. Most of us who consider ourselves on the Left would rather have Obama than any Republican. So this leaves the grassroots, those activists who give of themselves, with little real clout. As in the UK, the grassroots can be taken for granted in electoral politics because they can’t vote for the other side – however bad Labour gets, the Conservatives are always going to be worse.

In America, through the primary system, they can choose between candidates – but the millions of people involved in campaigning are tied to individual politicians, not to each other. The relationship is heirarchical, not associative.

When, at the conference, I demanded a movement led by activists, this is what I was referring to, which seems to have escaped Karin Robinson in her rebuttal (linked to above). Barack Obama is not John Kennedy, no one is pretending that he is – but the absence of a politically dynastic family background doesn’t make Obama any more “of” the people, much less a one man government “by” the people. Within American politics, there is no provision for government by the people except 2-, 4-, or 6-yearly elections.

In between times, activists have no power to control their elected officials. Moreover, even when it comes to elections, there is the power of the media to consider. Without an organised, activist-led, accountable movement, the way is open for politics to become simply another form of marketing. This is the problem I have with Sunny in the comments section of the LibCon article; when we are relying on people like Glenn Greenwald to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire”, we forego our own need to do that.

The problem is, we have no way to do that.

Labour has had fights about this issue since the 1918 constitution. Conference, the united body of Labour activists and their representatives, regularly came into conflict with the PLP, led by a Labour Prime Minister. The result was a defeat for the activists – the PLP flouted the desires of Labour Party members. When activists were in the ascendant, the Labour Party moved sharply to the Left; when activists were weak, the Party bureaucracy fought back, divesting conference of much power.

Hence Labour is now in its current impasse; power in the Party is held by the Party bureaucracy – the PLP, the Trades Union leadership and so forth. Activists are not the arbiters they should be – since upon activists rests the greatest responsibility for the movement as a whole. Moreover, its with an activist-led movement that lies the only chance to escape politics as marketing and an endless series of talking heads. This is something we share with our American and European cousins, and this is why I made a dig at the Obama campaign.

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  1. Corndog
    March 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm | #1

    Do you think Labour was ever really led or controlled by the activists, etc? If so, do you think it could ever be again?

  2. March 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm | #2

    This is the problem I have with Sunny in the comments section of the LibCon article; when we are relying on people like Glenn Greenwald to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire”, we forego our own need to do that.

    I’m not saying he alone does it – but he is a very informed individual that others can coalesce around. If Glen wasn’t popular then the administration could ignore him. Same goes for the Daily Kos lot.

    So I’m not denying the need for popular movements at all. I’m just saying GG represents one bit of that.

  3. Corndog
    March 21, 2009 at 4:12 pm | #3

    “He, and I’m sorry to say a lot of other people in the room, seem to give credit for genuine community spirit only to people who already think and act exactly like them. Mainstream political organising isn’t activism. The community organising that Barack did in Chicago wasn’t activism. All those previously non-political people who got inspired by Barack and spent months of their lives traipsing through rain and snow for him – that didn’t make them activists.”

    Sounds just like you.

  4. March 21, 2009 at 4:22 pm | #4

    Corndog…do we know each other? I’d be interested to know what you base your rather pointless dig on.

    Actually, as I’ve tried to point out, Karin was wrong in her assertion that I only regard as an activist those people who think and act like me.

    Sunny…I agree with you that he can keep us informed, and information is one part of accountability, but a talking head telling us things about the Obama administration doesn’t actually fix any of the problems.

    The most we can say is that GG opens the road to accountability by telling us what’s going on. We have to walk down that road – and so far, we haven’t.

  5. March 22, 2009 at 2:49 am | #5

    Yes, WE have to… though the blogger Democrats in the US are doing a good job of raising issues the administration backs down on, or doesn’t do, and then making a big stink about it and rallying the troops. That’s the way to do things, right?

  6. March 22, 2009 at 7:11 am | #6

    It absolutely is the way to do things…but I haven’t seen evidence of moving beyond “media furore” to “rallying the troops” – I’d be really interested to hear the details of that if you have the time to post up a few links.

  7. March 22, 2009 at 11:44 am | #7

    Within American politics, there is no provision for government by the people except 2-, 4-, or 6-yearly elections.

    Doesn’t this ignore state and local elections, and the fact that a great many more government positions (police chiefs, school boards, etc.) are directly-elected positions in the US? The federal government of the US does not yet hold the same relative power over its citizens (the ‘grass roots’) that the British government does over British subjects.

    Totally agree that the idea of bloggers holding the government to account are, as yet, somewhat fanciful, though I could imagine a future in which a handful of demagogues might be powerful enough to influence government policy.

    Additionally, I’m not sure how your idea of activists holding politicians to account inbetween elections would work. Politicians don’t get their mandate from activists, they get it from the electorate, and the wishes of the electorate may not be aligned with the wishes of the activists. If (and I really haven’t studied this in detail, so I may be wrong) the electorate always picks the centrist, what right do the left (or right!) leaning activists have to deny the electorate what they voted for, just because they feel that the newly-elected politician owes them something? The same argument, of course, has to apply to other vested interests who would try to influence politicians (corporate donors, etc.).

  8. March 22, 2009 at 12:30 pm | #8

    Hey Rob. I’m not ignoring education boards, dogcatcher and the myriad other things which people run for. I was simply preferring to look at the national situation.

    With regard to local elections, however, a few different issues emerge. First of all, there are a great deal more independents because activists are better organised, whether Greens or candidates put forward as the result of a local issue.

    Second thing, which isn’t so heartening, is that the heirarchical relationship still exists. For councillors, state legislature members and so on, there’s no accountability either. Now whether or not there should be is a different question.

    I’m in favour of an electoral right of recall to begin with – which takes in some of your argument about accountability to the whole electorate. Moreover, where activists are well organised around a minimum programme, then they have a right to expect that the person they selected to run in their name should carry out that minimum programme. This doesn’t interfere with your notion of the elected representative as responsible to the whole people since where this situation pertains, the candidate has been elected on the basis of a manifesto determined by activists.

    Were I to move the argument about accountability to activists in a different direction, however, I could rest it on my view of the illegitimacy of formal-democratic elections in Western states, the nature of the state not as neutral instrument of administration so much as a tool of class oppression and defender of private property, which is the basis for inequality and the dominance of one class.

    What I would like to see is the replacement of these formal-democratic institutions with the democratic instruments of workers’ control: workers councils organised by workplace and living space, to the exclusion of the ruling class. As producers of wealth, it’s my view that we have that right. To organise that replacement, however, we have to move beyond the heirarchical relationship activists currently have with candidates.

    In fact, more than that, we’d have to redraw how we view elections – not as means to win control of the State and thereby to redraw society as we wish, but as tactical interventions symptomatic of a much wider extra-parliamentary movement that would eventually take the place of formal-democratic government in the manner outlined above, to overcome the inherent disadvantages workers suffer currently – wealth, contacts, the media and basically all the institutions of bourgeois capitalist hegemony over society.

    What I mean to say by the last three paragraphs is simply that I don’t view elected representatives as accountable to the whole people because we don’t live in a democracy. The ‘whole people’ include classes with fundamentally irreconcilable interests, where one of those classes exercises the whole machinery of society – from education, the churches and so on – to prevent genuine democracy.

    The question boils down to this: how serious are we about devolution of power to a collective, grassroots movement? In the UK, everyone constantly bemoans the centralisation of New Labour; in the US, we’ve heard similar things about Bush. If we want millions of people everyone to grab control not just of the State but of the economy and to reorganise it, then we have to recognise that this isn’t going to happen due to the current electoral system.

    Not to say that some beneficial things can’t be achieved of course.

  9. March 22, 2009 at 1:40 pm | #9

    Hmmm… there’s a bit I want to reply to but I’m going to confine myself to something very specific – ie the point you made at the conference and Karin’s disagreement with you (nice to meet you there by the way).

    Now you may have meant a lot of what you said here – about holding the President to account etc – but what you actually said in the very short space allowed you was about the campaign itself.

    Deselecting Obama in four years time or accountability during the Presidency are new points (at least to my memory). The *campaign itself* was the most activist led that there has been in living memory and I think to imply that any disagreement with you was based on other arguments you didn’t make on this occasion, or that Obama had some big business backers is slightly unfair.

    As Karin said there were large parts of the campaign that were completely independent and run by activists without any input at all from the centre. Likewise no one is arguing that the centre didn’t do anything – it shaped key themes and campaigns, but always with an eye to mobilising the maximum number and, crucially allowing supporters to be part of the movement.

    More importantly it turned many people who in traditional camapigns would have been simply part of the voter base into activists and organisers – running the show at ground level.

    The reason why Obama did far better in caucuses than the primary ballots was precisely because of the strength he’d been able to build up in this area against the far more deeply entrenched Clinton machine.

    If you take something like Obama Girl this is something that “activists” would never have created but it was completely independent from the Obama Camp – it’s creation and, crucially, it’s popularity came from below. They then embraced it despite having nothing to do with its tone or message.

    You wont be seeing anything even a little like this for Labour’s next election campaign.

  10. March 22, 2009 at 2:01 pm | #10

    Well actually Jim, I’ve specifically said that none of this came up (see paragraph six). The only thing that came up was my distinction between “activist” campaigns and “activist-led” campaigns – from which Karin extrapolated a whole host of opinions about me practically none of which were justifiable.

    At no point did we discuss how “activist” the campaign was, except in my summation – where I called for more activist-led campaigns (paragraph two). Karin subsequently brought up in her article some of the issues I’ve addressed here – particularly whether or not Obama can be considered an activist.

    My opinion is that he isn’t, and that his campaign was far from activist-led, and moreover that in terms of accountability, Obama has exactly the same degree of accountability to the people who elected him as any of his predecessors – none. I’ve given plenty of reasons and arguments for this position above.

    What people do during the campaign is all very well – and the carnivalesque is great – but how exactly do you imagine that this will shape the laws Congress passes and Obama signs? Or the Executive appointments he makes, orders he signs and so forth? It won’t – so in reality what the “decentralisation” of Obama’s campaign added up to was simply allowing pre-existent sentiment to mobilise itself and cashing in on it, without sacrificing any independence to political accountability.

    I’m not denying that Obama was popular…but to say that because some events were independently staged the campaign was “activist-led” is a bit ridiculous.

  11. March 24, 2009 at 1:05 pm | #11

    “but he’s not interested in expanding the power of a grassroots, collective movement.”

    I’d say there is an exception in the employee free choice act though, which is pretty paradigm breaking given the one of debate for the last 3 decades…

  12. March 24, 2009 at 1:15 pm | #12

    Moreover, where activists are well organised around a minimum programme, then they have a right to expect that the person they selected to run in their name should carry out that minimum programme. This doesn’t interfere with your notion of the elected representative as responsible to the whole people since where this situation pertains, the candidate has been elected on the basis of a manifesto determined by activists.

    But that’s not true at all. Nowhere on the ballot forms for any US (or UK) election do we tick a box saying “I agree to the Manifesto”. We tick the name of a person, which might possibly also be suffixed with the name of the party that nominated that person. Activists certainly have the moral right to expect that the implicit bargain struck with the candidate(s) (that they implement the manifesto when in office) is kept, but there’s probably no enforceable agreement (which raises an interesting question of whether forcing candidates to sign such an agreement would work).

    Your approach to these kinds of elections works if a) we assume that the electorate is engaged with the contents of the manifesto and that b) their vote for the candidate whose party created the manifesto equates to a vote for the manifesto (rather than a vote for the personal character of the candidate). I’m not sure that elections ever work like that, though they obviously must work that way to some extent.

    This approach assumes that we should attempt to construct a set of rational policies ahead of time, then pass these through several stages of voting to ratify them, culminating in a general election in which the public ratifies the policies to be carried out over the next four (or so) years. However, voters may prefer an empiricist approach: elect the guy and see what happens. In this scenario, being elected is an almost random process, in the sense that you get elected when your opponent screws up, and you get to carry on until you screw up too (we could call this the “Just a minute!” model of democracy). It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any Popper, but I dimly recall him putting this forward as a not-awful system, on the basis that it at least has the merit of getting rid of the worst governments, modelled on his conception of science as a process of conjecture (“let’s see if these policies and people work”) and refutation (“oh god, they’re bloody awful”).

    On the subject of workers councils (something I know next to nothing about), where would be the best place for me to find out more? I’m pretty poorly-acquainted with Marxist literature generally – the only vaguely Marxist thing I’ve read is The Society of the Spectacle, which was brilliant. My first instinct is to be dubious of the idea though, on the basis that I don’t like being told what to do by anyone, and a workers council sounds like something that would want to tell me what to do and might stand a better chance than government does of noticing if I don’t do it.

  13. March 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm | #13

    “Within American politics, there is no provision for government by the people except 2-, 4-, or 6-yearly elections.

    In between times, activists have no power to control their elected officials.”

    Also, don’t forget the New England town hall model, or the right to recall that a lot of states have for state government; and in the US, state Government controls a lot…

  14. March 24, 2009 at 5:23 pm | #14

    Rob, while it may not be the case that voters assiduously ascribe to the manifesto – I vote Labour and I bloody don’t, and I’m a party member – the whole justification for Whips in any parliamentary system is that the party is elected as a whole on the basis of its manifesto.

    We’re crossing conversations – on one level we can talk about how things are, on another we can talk about how we want them to be. As things stand, as I said, voters might not read never mind endorse the manifesto of their chosen party, but then as I’ve also said, as things stand, we don’t live in a democracy.

    The Obama movement didn’t take place in a vacuum, with everyone making their minds up independently of everyone else. In terms of opinion-forming, we must consider the hegemonic terms under which we live every day, and how this is fed and related to by Obama when we read about it after it has been filtered by the vested, structurally manifested interests of Capital.

    This is why Popper’s model doesn’t work, it has no way to take into account motivation. We can sit back and plan rational policies and then ask for them to be ratified, but they’re not going to be assessed, never mind approved or rejected, on their ‘rational’ merits. That’s not what elections are today, it’s not what democracy is today.

    Democracy today is profoundly influenced by the state of class struggle, how organised the working class is, how united the ruling class is and basically the ideas, practices and traditions of the entire society in which the democracy is set. These ideas, practices and traditions express the state of class struggle at any given time.

    My goal, then, is not to have a set of policies rationally approved, my goal is to win the class struggle. Only by doing so can we escape the ideological box into which we’re confined by the internal logics of the capitalist economic system and ruling class hegemony (=methods of thinking inspired by daily life, ideas, practices and traditions, the terms of which are all underpinned by capitalism).

    In the course of winning the class struggle, we introduce new ideas, practices and traditions, overturning the hegemony of the ruling class and finally restore a genuine, free choice to people. Which is why Marxists counterpose “formal” or “bourgeois” democracy with the ‘democratic dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

    For the theory behind that, there’s no one book you can go to – it’s drawn from Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Williams and a bunch of others besides, over a hundred and fifty years of scholarship and writing.

    That’s not actually a tangent, however it may appear so. Let me draw it back together: Obama talked about whether we “participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope”, he lectured his activists on how “we [he and they] are the change we seek.” He has supplemented his free market rhetoric with populist pronunciations on how markets must benefit “the many, not the few” and so on.

    In all this, having whipped up such a huge activist movement, having gone round the USA and demanded that people be engaged, what I want to know is – did he mean until the end of the election or did he mean properly and forever engaged with the political process? If he meant the later, then to keep people engaged with the political process, we need to step beyond elections. If he meant the former, then he’s not the progressive leader that Compass and others keep wittering about.

    Moreover, engagement is not a linear process – engagement implies organisation, and organisation will lead to a clash between the leaders of the movement and the movement itself because the interests of the two diverge.

    Whatever else Barack Obama might be, he’s still bought and paid for by we may casually call “the Washington elite” – it’s not just a Washington elite, it’s an elite that exists in all corners of the United States, it’s the elite that skims off the surplus value of our labour. His rhetoric often reflects this, but it is also (opportunistically?) welded to this populist notion of engagement.

    The forms that this engagement should take is something we need to debate: Karin suggested Obama’s campaign was activist-led. I’m maintaining it wasn’t. Someone in her comments box suggested we shouldn’t prioritize activist-led over activist, I’m saying we should. And activist-led campaigns will in turn lead us to new and better forms of democracy, with the distortions of ruling class hegemony and our daily alienation from our labour removed.

    This, finally, leads me back to workers’ councils. Democracy in a capitalist state means nothing without a democratic economy (at which point the economy and its appended state would cease to be capitalist). If you don’t have a democratic, planned economy, you leave the ability to accumulate capital, and the existence of a sub-class of wage-slaves, intact. This in turn provides the space for the reassertion of capitalist hegemony, which in turn limits the scope of democratic choice, since, as I said, choices at current bourgeois-democratic elections are not predicated upon rationally assessing competing manifestos.

  15. March 25, 2009 at 8:30 am | #15

    Over at my place, commenting on a not totally unrelated post, Tim (of Provisional BBC fame) sets out a similar argument about the need to move from activist to activist led campaigning, but doesnt use that language. Instead, and usefully I thikn, he talks explictly about the need to transfer power/resources by ‘delegating’ the formation of his (own) ‘values’ to the working class. He does so by setting it in contrast to Compass’s current efforts, which are about bringing people into the Compass value and policy paradigm, under the guise of engagement.

    My reply to Tim, for what it’s worth is as follows:

    ‘There is a lot to draw out about how best to ‘delegate’ the development of a social movement, and the relationship between political education and facilitation, and I think you’re dead right to critique the way Compass manipulates the notion of engagement and debate so that it is only on its own terms. The How to Live in the 21st century competition, and the way it’s been handled is a case in point.

    Having said that, they’re not the only ones. I’ve also posted on the way the LRC’s 22 April ‘Their Crisis not Ours’ day is headed down the ‘Our expertise, Not Yours’ route, and I think the problem of education over facilitation, leading not joining forces, is systemic to the political class, of which I now couint myself one. In the end it’s about keeping power. This is a shame, because educational theory and practice has moved on a very long way since Rosa L was able to talk about spontaneity of movement amongst working class, but lefwing politics does not seem to have grasped many (any?) of the new methods or tools now available.’

  1. August 22, 2009 at 11:29 am | #1

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