Please see the poltical environment report on our meeting reports page.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, but haven’t had a chance to write my thoughts until today. Sorry if this gets a bit long, it is a long and important document.
In general I think that the statement paints a very good picture. But the way some things are framed feel like a little more than nit-picks about word choice.
Mainly is revolves around the framing of big tech and social media. I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to the theory of surveillance capitalism. The theory posits that companies like Google have created a formation of capitalism that is different from previous modes of capital accumulation, and has enclosed new areas of “the commons.” It has reshaped capitalism in a way similar to how Ford ushered in the era of managerial capitalism one hundred years ago. The surveillance capitalist logic creates new imperatives that are different from how we would think about other neo-liberal multi-national corporations.
Whether or not you fully buy the theory, I do think it is well observed that these companies have reshaped our relationships to capitalism, and existing relationships within capitalist hegemony. We’re dealing with a formation of capitalism that is new in the world.
Relatedly, I think we are conflating state and corporate surveillance in an unhelpful way. While tech companies regularly cooperate with the state, they are not the state, and are often in competition with state level actors for control of secret information. They have their own motives. Since the Snowden revelations, the big companies have done quite a lot to block state level surveillance. Google does not want the NSA in its networks, it wants that data for itself.
Corporate surveillance of the sort Google and Facebook do is a very real issue in these times, but it is a very different threat than the one posed by technologically enabled state surveillance. They have different effects on movements, and require different strategies of disruption.
My other issues with the statement are specific to some of the enumerated challenges.
2 - The progressive movements’ relationship to technology, while more thoughtful that a year ago, is still primitive politically and often the basis for very serious political errors in software choices and expressed political perspectives. In face, most movement organizations do not have a technology platform of political approach.
First of all, I would prefer not using “primitive” as a descriptor for any ally, given its history of racist colonial usage. I understand it is being used here in a traditional Marxist usage, but it is a needlessly loaded term for what we’re trying to say. An I think what we are trying to say here comes off as insultingly vanguardist—which I don’t think is what we’re going for.
This challenge starts with an acknowledgement that the relationship has changed in the last few years, and then in the same sentence, belittles that political growth as “primitive” and “the basis for very serious political errors.”
A social media strategy isn’t politically “primitive” and not necessarily an error in expressed political perspectives. We shouldn’t be making assumptions about the choices people are making when they are doing their organizing work. It is the not okay to assume that folks simply don’t understand all of the stakes. People may be choosing to organize “where the people are” despite knowing full well that it is a fraught choice.
We all have to decide what compromises we live with in a system that forces us to constantly compromise our values to survive. Making what I would consider to be liberatory technology choices often takes some combination of more time, more work, or more money. I may disagree with using a Google Doc politically, but I can’t argue that it isn’t much faster to do that than it is to set up Nextcloud accounts, and teach folks how it all works, or the fact that more people are comfortable using Google tools, which makes the work easier to share. User management and training take time, and with everyone using Google, you can skip that work. Saving time and spreading work are both worthy organizing goals.
In a world of busy people making tough choices, we can’t assume that people don’t understand that Facebook isn’t part the world we’re working towards, and we shouldn’t brow beat folks as they organize on FB.
I spent many years as a technologist making very stark claims about the correctness of people’s tech politics. I convinced fewer people than I drove away. That was my, and many other technologists mistake. One I’ve worked hard to grow past.
I have long wished that movements would broadly recognize that tech choices are inherently political, but I’ve realized that comes from a kind of political education of the sort that other movements have done. One example, we introduce ourselves with pronouns these days. This did not happen regularly in the movement spaces I was a part of 15-20 years ago, but it was happening in queer influenced spaces, and it grew. We do it everywhere now. This transition didn’t happen because folks were convinced that they had no platform of political approach around gender, but rather because movement thinking was broadened by thousands of conversations in many spaces, over years.
Starting at the point of “you’re doing it wrong” has proved to be a failing strategy, and this challenge starts exactly there.
3 - There is a grave and dangerous “generation gap” when it comes to technology with younger activists, who are now taking the wheel of much leadership, making tech choices that trend towards social media while older activists are less conversant with that platform and, in many cases, not very comfortable with the Internet.
I don’t think social media is actually the important part. To me, the generation gap is more about where we prioritize organizing energy and resources. In short it is an “internet first” versus “internet as part” dichotomy in organizing strategy. It is about where we conceptualize spaces of political possibility to exist. There is a generational gap in assuming that “everyone” is online, and one in the efficacy of internet organizing."
I do think these gaps present an organizing challenge, but I’m not sure if it rises to “grave danger,” and I worry that this framing doesn’t leave enough room strategic thoughtful use of social media.
4 - These same social media platforms are also being used, effectively, by the fascist movement in the U.S. and our movement has had no real response to that onslaught except to ask corporations and governments to intervene.
Do we not consider Antfa part of our movement? They have very real strategies being employed every day. Those strategies do include asking corporations to intervene. Are we seriously saying that this hasn’t been effective? Or is it just not a “real response” for some other reason?
Mayfirst not having a developed strategy doesn’t mean there isn’t one in “the movement” writ large.
This challenge either pushes folks doing this work out of our umbrella of “the movement” or it keeps them there and just ignores the work they do, or it says that this work is just not “real.”
7 - The necessary collaboration between technologists and non-tech activists, something we have long considered essential in our movements’ work, has yet to take place and, in certain ways, has become more stilted and “corporate” over the last year.
I’m just not sure what the work becoming “more stilted and “corporate” over the last year.” actually means in this context. Perhaps this needs to be expanded?
I have the scars to show how hard that collaboration can be. I honestly feel at a better spot in that collaboration than I did ten years ago. Things I used to argue with folks about now seem manifestly obvious. Yes there could be more happening, but I feel like we’re better positioned politically now than ever. The issue is that we are also less able to compete with corporate offerings than we were ten years ago.
Thanks for the thoughtful responses Nat! There is a lot here but I want to start with the fascists on social media point.
I think demanding that corporations take down fascists is, at worst, a counter productive strategy because it has and will be used against us. Many movement activists are getting taken down along with fascists all with the same rationale, strengthening the “extremists on both sides” false narrative.
At best its a poorly articulated strategy. I haven’t seen it pursued in a way that emphasizes that the core problem is that monopolistic corporations are essentially running key institutions of democracy and banning a few fascists won’t solve the problem. And I’m not exactly sure how to articulate it, but would love to see and help develop this articulation.
To be clear, ignoring fascists online is not a strategy. either!
I’d have a couple of things to say to Nat’s superb analysis of the document.
The most important question, for me personally, is situating tech and big tech in capitalist development and its history. Nat proposes that we may be in a stage of “new capitalism”. Capitalism is always morphing but I think it’s useful to consider this stage as a continuation of the developments of the last century in which the stresses of the system have been switched from its production stage to its consumption (or capital realization) stage. I think, as I’ve written most recently in the newest book, that the battle over the Internet is really a battle over who gets to use it to frame the future: the capitalist class which seeks to use it to market products beyond their real usefulness to prop up a collapsing system or the rest of us using it to plan and organize our survival.
I think that reality should frame May First’s responses…to just about everything. I don’t think we do that at all.
I’m not sure Nat would actually disagree with that analysis but I’m not arguing – just kind of trying to illustrate one way of looking at it.
The other stuff Nat says is really a critique of statements in the document. There are some political statements that might produce differences.
I really really really disagree with this paragraph. I represent us in all kinds of places with all generations, and many many young people, and I have yet to see this dichotomy. It’s clearly not May First’s position that “internet first” is a political strategy. For gracious sakes. Our perspective has always been completely the opposite. Also I know very few people who think “everyone is online”. There are 4.5 billion people on line, though. Thing is, if you’re not on-line, May First can’t work with you because that’s what we do. Right?
If you look at our own Board. Where do those people work? Because it’s not technology.
I do agree though that we aren’t thinking strategically about social media. I disagree that people use it balancing its benefits with its dangers. Most leaders of organizations I know who use social media – and that’s a lot – don’t give those dangers a thought. Yeah, like Nat says, they know about the dangers – we’ve accomplished that much as a movement which is a real step forward. But they don’t care. It’s not balancing; it’s totally ignoring the dangers with what I consider an often cynical shrug of the shoulders.
Nat may remember and he and I organized a huge workshop at Allied Media Conference some years back where lots of younger organizers participated and he’ll remember that some of their attitude about surveillance, etc. was that the government is always going to do that stuff so why fight it. Well, let’s talk about that…huh?
Finally, I seriously disagree that there is a movement strategy for dealing with rightist attacks. There are methods people use and, as he points out, there are strategies particular organizations have. But a movement-wide strategy? Uh uh. No way. Nat knows, because he’s in these conferences, that the need for such a strategy to combat on-line fascism is one of the major cries of the social justice movement. In short, the point isn’t that no one has a strategy; it’s that we don’t have a united strategy.
That’s the whole point of this convergence program we have on the “imminent danger”.
Here’s the thing. Nat says in a bunch of places that we shouldn’t “assume” stuff. But I wasn’t assuming when I wrote the document; I was drawing from concrete experiences in the work you have assigned me. Nat’s disagreements emanate from some real differences in politics and perception. These are important conversations and Nat is a guy I always pay attention to.
So we need to continue these discussions here and elsewhere. Some of us are saying that we need some workshops or convergences or something for our leadership to have these kinds of political discussions. I would love to see that and this exchange is a reflection of why.
Anyway, again, thanks to Nat for taking the time and doing the thinking.
Let’s keep going.