Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
"Today the spirit drowns in a mass of chance encounters. We are looking for those who are still alive enough to support each other
beyond this; those fleeing Normal Life. "
-Against Sleep and Nightmare
We live in a society in which most of our encounters have already been defined in terms of predetermined roles and relationships in which we have no say. A randomness devoid of surprise surrounds the scheduled torment of work with a "free time" lacking in joy, wonder or any real freedom to act on one's own terms, a "free time" not so very different from the job from which it is supposed to be a respite. Exploitation permeates the whole of existence as each of our interactions is channeled into a form of relating that has already been determined in terms of the needs of the ruling order, in order to guarantee the continued reproduction of a society in which a few control the conditions of everyone's existence and so own all of our lives.
So the revolt against our exploitation is not essentially a political or even an economic struggle, but a struggle against the totality of our current existence (and so against politics and economy), against the daily activities and interactions imposed on us by the economy, the state and all the institutions and apparati of domination and control that make up this civilization. Such a struggle cannot be carried out by any means. It requires a method of acting in and encountering the world in which new relations, those of free individuals who refuse to be exploited and dominated and equally refuse to dominate or exploit, manifest here and now. In other words, our struggle must be the immediate reappropriation of our lives, in conflict with the present society.
Starting from this basis, the refusal of formality and the development of relations of affinity cannot be seen in merely tactical or strategic terms. Rather, they are reflections in practice of what we are fighting for if we are, indeed, fighting to take back our lives, to reappropriate the capacity to determine the conditions of our own existence-i.e., the capacity for self organization.
The development of relationships of affinity is specifically the development of a deep knowledge of one another in a complex manner, a profound understanding of each other's ideas, dreams, desires, passions, aspirations, capacities, conceptions of the struggle and of life. It is, indeed a discovery of what is shared in common, but more significantly it is a discover of differences, of what is unique to each individual, because it is at the point of difference that one can truly discover the projects one can carry out with another.
Since the development of relationships of affinity is itself a reflection of our aims as anarchists and since it is intended to create a deep and ever-expanding knowledge of one another, it cannot simply be left to chance. We need to intentionally create the opportunity for encounters, discussions and debates in which our ideas, aspirations and visions of the revolutionary struggle can come into contention, where real affinities and real conflicts can come out and be developed-not with the aim of finding a unifying middle ground in which every one is equally compromised, but to clarify distinctions and so discover a real basis for creating projects of action that aren't simply playing the role of radical, activist or militant, but that are real reflections of the desires, passions and ideas of those involved. While publications, internet discussion boards and correspondence can provide means for doing this on some levels, to the extent to which they are open forums they tend to be too random, with potential for the discussion to lose any projectuality and get sidetracked into the democratic exchange of opinions which have little connection to one's life. To my mind, the best and most significant discussions can take place in face-to-face encounters between people with some clarity of why they are coming together to discuss. Thus, organizing discussion groups, conferences, meetings and the like is an integral part of the development of relations of affinity and so of projects of action.
The necessity to pursue the development of relationships of affinity with intention does not mean the development of a formal basis for affinity. It seems to me that formality undermines the possibility of affinity, because it is by nature based on a predetermined, and therefore arbitrary, commonality. Formal organization is based upon an ideological or programmatic unity that ultimate comes down to adherence to the organization as such. Differences must be swept aside for the cause of the organization, and when differences are swept aside, so also are dreams, desires, aspirations and passions since these can only ever belong to the individual. But, in fact, formal organization has nothing to do with intention or projectuality. In fact, by providing an ideology to adhere to it relieves the individual of the responsibility of thinking for herself and developing his own understanding of the world and of her struggle in it. In providing a program, it relieves the individual of the necessity of acting autonomously and making practical analyses of the real conditions in which she is struggling. So, in fact, formality undermines projectuality and the capacity for self organization and so undermines the aim of anarchist struggle.
Relationships of affinity are the necessary basis of self organization on the most basic daily level of struggle and of life. It is the deep and growing knowledge of one another that provides the basis for developing projects of revolt that truly reflect our own aspirations and dreams, for developing a shared struggle that is based in the recognition and, at its best, the passionate enjoyment of our very real and beautiful differences. The development of social revolution will, of course, require an organizing of activity beyond the range of our relationships of affinity, but it is the projects that we develop from these relationships that give us the capacity for self-organization, the strength to refuse all formality and, thus, all of the groups that claim to represent the struggle, whether they call themselves parties, unions or federations. In the relationship of affinity, a new way of relating free from all roles and every hackneyed social relationship already begins to develop, and with it an apparent unpredictability that the authorities will never understand. Here and now, we grasp a world of wonder and joy that is a powerful weapon for destroying the world of domination.
article found in the link:
Friday, November 21, 2008
UK Government DNS Take-Over
The UK government, with a long track record of authoritarian measures has a new goal: a clampdown on the DNS system.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, run by former Young Communist League member, Peter Mandelson is making a power grab for Nominet the company that runs the UK DNS system.
BERR wrote a letter to the chairman of Nominet which contains the following weasel words:
What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the Internet community are understood and taken into account?
In bureaucrat-speak this means "do what we say, or we'll take you over". Of course if a company does what the government says it has been taken over anyway, so really that paragraph is saying "we're taking you over".
This power grab is not surprising. It comes from the most controlling and authoritarian government in the so-called free world. We should have been expecting it.
In a country with more CCTV cameras per head than any other, with long periods of detention without trial, which has a government that uses anti-terrorism laws to grab the assets of Icelandic banks and fraud to create 'intelligence' dossiers, it is hardly surprising that free speech on the Internet is under threat.
Mandelson has recently been exposed as being in contact with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska has been given a $2.5 billion dollar helping hand from former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin.
Bloggers and the Internet is one area of self-expression where the power hungry Stasi that run Britain haven't been able to control. But they want to. An assault on the DNS system is one way they can start doing it.
How long before free speech on the Internet is dead?
UK Government to Ban Content It Doesn't Like http://gnuru.org/article/1400/uk-government-ban-content-it-doesn-t-like
The UK Government wants to turn off web sites it doesn't like, that's the real aim of its plan to takeover the .uk DNS system.
On Wednesday a certain David Hendon who works for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, said that the domain name industry needs to toe the government line on phishing, spam and "bad content".
Now, no one is in favour of phishing and spam, but what on earth does this bureaucrat mean by "bad content"?
We don't have to look far. Hazel Blears, a career politician who is currently Communities Secretary, recently made noises about shutting down blogs she doesn't like. She particular doesn't like the blog of Guido Fawkes. It's not surprising she doesn't like that blog because he has broken many stories that have been very embarrassing to the government. This is what she said:
Unless and until political blogging 'adds value' to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and pessimism.
Now, the thing is that Guido is a new and disparate voice. It's just that he's not the sort of new and disparate voice that Blears and the other aparatchiks in the government like. She only wants ones authorised by her.
This government is the most two-faced, cynical and authoritarian in the rapidly-becoming-less-free world. They have already banned certain types of protest in London. Now, they only want you look at content, they've authorised.
Welcome to hell.
African child 'well-being' rated
|By Emily Buchanan|
Comparing neighbours Eritrea, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Chad were considered to be among the least child-friendly countries. Malawi ranks first in its budgetary commitment to children, but has the 45th lowest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Africa. And Equatorial Guinea ranks 44th in its budgetary commitment, but has one of the highest GDPs per capita in Africa. Dr Assefa Bequele, the Executive Director of ACPF, says the usual style of UN development reports which compare countries across the globe are easily dismissed by African governments. "Comparing Switzerland to Rwanda is pointless; the only thing they have in common is both are land-locked," he says. "The idea is to encourage countries to become more child-centred by showing how they compare to their neighbours." When it comes to protecting children from harm and exploitation, Kenya comes out top. It has laws against harmful traditional practices, trafficking and sexual exploitation, and is one of the few countries where corporal punishment is banned in schools and prisons. However, the report found that a third of African countries offer no protection against child trafficking, and a quarter do not outlaw female genital mutilation. Because this report has been compiled by an African organisation for Africa, it may have more traction across the continent. It will be repeated every two years to monitor progress. Its authors expect countries that do focus on their children to develop faster than those which do not. "The countries that invest in children will have a more productive work-force and the foundation of a more peaceful and democratic country. The investment will certainly pay off," says Dr Bequele.
Australians march against climate change
For the last three years every November happening huge demonstrations. The demonstrations were held as Australia prepares to set national greenhouse gas emissions targets, expected around the end of this month. Environmentalists accuse industry of pushing for targets that are likely to compromise the environment. Australia is the world's 16th biggest carbon polluter, producing about 1.5 percent of the world's global emissions. It is the fourth largest emitter per person, with five times the pollution per person of China. The center-left government will outline its preferred emissions following public consultations involving global miners such as BHP Billiton and power companies like AGL Energy. An interim framework in July led to business group accusations that steel, cement and papermaking firms would be forced out of business or to shift operations overseas to Asian bases where emissions costs were lower or non-existent. To ease concerns, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and Treasurer Wayne Swan last month released Treasury modeling that found carbon trading would cut average per capita growth by 0.1 percent a year from introduction in 2010 to 2050, with only a small one-off inflation impact. The government has also promised proceeds from the auction of emissions permits will be used to compensate poor families and motorists for rises in the cost of fuel and electricity, which is mostly powered by burning coal. On Saturday, protesters took to the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and other cities, chanting calls for renewable energy and carrying banners with slogans such as "Renew our economy with strong targets" and "Turtles against climate change". Cate Faehrmann, executive director of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales state, said the march came amid a background of pressure from the fossil fuels industry for the government to adopt relatively soft emissions targets. "When it comes to climate change you just cannot have half measures when it comes to targets," Faehrmann said, adding scientists have urged targets that will limit global average temperature rises to two degrees Celsius. "There is not enough investment in renewable energy in this country. Job creation can occur there." Australia was one of the longest holdouts against the Kyoto protocol, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally committed the country to joining following his landslide election win last year, leaving the United States as the only major country not to have joined it.
THE C.I.A. DOES HOLLYWOOD
By Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham
Nov. 14 2008- Everyone who watches films knows about Hollywood's fascination with spies. From Hitchcock's postwar espionage thrillers, through cold war tales such as Torn Curtain, into the paranoid 1970s when the CIA came to be seen as an agency out of control in films such as Three Days of the Condor, and right to the present, with the Bourne trilogy and Ridley Scott's forthcoming Body of Lies, film-makers have always wanted to get in bed with spies. What's less widely known is how much the spies have wanted to get in bed with the film-makers. In fact, the story of the CIA's involvement in Hollywood is a tale of deception and subversion that would seem improbable if it were put on screen. The model for this is the defense department's "open" but barely publicized relationship with Hollywood. The Pentagon, for decades, has offered film-makers advice, manpower and even hardware - including aircraft carriers and state-of-the-art helicopters. All it asks for in exchange is that the US armed forces are made to look good. So in a previous Scott film, Black Hawk Down, a character based on a real-life soldier who had also been a child rapist lost that part of his backstory when he came to the screen. TO READ ALL ARTICLE NAVIGATE IN THE GREAT USA NEWS PAGE
THE GLOBAL REPORT
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
How prognostications of doom encourage passivity over action
There is a near cottage industry of leftists penning engaging, sometimes lurid, always vivid, prognostications of impending doom. Websites like Counterpunch and Common Dreams, for instance, have been prophesizing for several years that a war on Iran is imminent due to the fact that, respectively, a US naval ship relocated (2006), oil prices rose (2007), an admiral retired (2008), or, the ubiquitous favorite: the Bush Administration is simply insane. Yes – each one of these omens indicated – there will assuredly be war, maybe tomorrow!
Lest they be accused of a one-track mind, this special brand of clairvoyance is also applied to the domestic front, grimly and confidently warning in 2003 of an inevitable draft should the war on Iraq worsen. There also exist similar warnings that not only is the economy collapsing but also that an unprecedented “tsunami” of economic horrors, beyond the reach of every known metaphor, is upon us. Did the stock market fall today? Vindication! Did it rise? Aha, the calm before the storm. It is not to completely deny the validity of these accounts to observe that their entertaining silliness -- less analysis and reportage than geopolitical soothsaying – reveals and obscures several important problems.
In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle Debord notes that, “Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator’s condition.” And these self-indulgent depictions of looming disaster indeed embody pure spectatorship, making individual agency or even counterargument irrelevant. Sit and watch as the tidal wave approaches. Isn’t it beautiful/horrifying? These are schadenfreude expressions of a defeated left that knows not what to do and has no confidence in itself, so it has decided to watch and hope. Yet another false alarm? Don’t worry; it will happen soon, they have to believe. It is noteworthy that these prophets do not care that they’ve harmed their credibility through so many years of false predictions; doomsday is their religion.
These predictions are dubious not because they are always wrong in particular but because they are right in general. Like boys crying wolf, these warnings are correct that war and recession are inevitable. But they are inevitable not because a general retired or the price of oil went up. Rather, war will occur, though nobody (certainly not these fortunetellers, whose rate of accuracy makes football prognosticators look like serious scientists) knows exactly when, because waging war is what states do. War, as oft and correctly stated, is the health of the state.
War is required to tear down obstacles to capital accumulation, open, create and protect markets, prime the economy, thwart rivals, concentrate political power, distract and disarm domestic criticism, strengthen national ideologies and attack labor, among other things. The dogged attention on stopping the next war ignores that, so long as there are states and capitalism, war is inevitable.
Interestingly, the frequent characterization of the Bush Administration as crazy fulfills stated US propaganda aims. In a frequently quoted but apparently forgotten 1998 paper, the Pentagon counseled that the US should try to portray itself as being not "fully rational and cool-headed." Rather, the Strategic Command advised, the US’s foreign policy goals would be best achieved through the projection of an “irrational and vindictive” persona, intending to intimidate real or imaginary opponents in order to get its way with the least possible resistance. The fact that, in addition to the current president, the major presidential candidates have all threatened massive bombings of recalcitrant nations suggests that their "irrationality" is, from a state perspective, not irrational at all.
The US naturally has concerns over the prospects of Iranian power and, just as obviously, is quite willing to employ war as a continuation of its politics. While speculation on specifically what a state will do and when it will do it is mostly guesswork, the fact is that as it now stands the US military is badly overextended. Beyond its deteriorating equipment and exhausted troops, the military has little strategic leverage due to its engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the contrary, an attack on Iran would immediately make US soldiers more vulnerable than they already are due to the probable retaliation by Shiite forces in Iraq that have mostly refrained from engaging the occupying army. It is more likely that it is this very strategic and tactical weakness that is accounting for increased US bellicosity, as the administration hopes that the threats of a putatively irrational lame duck president will achieve the political goals that its military cannot. In this regard, leftist warnings about the trigger-happy president and his pending attack on Iran do the government’s bidding.
Regarding the ongoing war in Iraq, Norman Solomon critiques the "path of least resistance" arguments of the anti-war movement, noting that the propensity to criticize the war for being “unwinnable” – a rhetorical ploy designed to appeal to US patriotism – has found itself snookered when faced with media propaganda that the “surge” “is working.” Solomon correctly stresses that wars should not be criticized for being unsuccessful but because they are state mass murder. Similarly with capitalism, criticism should not be limited to its crises. Recessions, and for most of its history, depressions, are part and parcel of capitalism. A fevered focus on anticipating the next recession frequently implies that economic downturns are avoidable or result from individual misdeeds rather than capitalism’s systemic requirements.
Criticism of capitalism should not point to its (prospective) “bad” elements through forecasting and bemoaning depressions, but should instead stress the intrinsic relationship uniting capitalism’s booms and slumps. The inherent exploitation and wastefulness of capitalism is ever present if one is only willing to look, not least during its booms. A system of speculative-based perpetual expansion and rapacious consumption predicated on the extraction of profit from wage labor should be loathed not seasonally but always.
Additionally, the hyperbolic tones of these warnings are ill suited to describing the evolution of depressions. Forgotten is that the Great Depression did not arrive all at once with the stock market crash, but instead developed gradually in fits and starts throughout the early 1930s. Similarly ignored is that a rather intense recession has wracked the US economy, on and off, since 1973. Profit, Robert Brenner demonstrates in The Boom and the Bubble, has diminished every decade since the end of the postwar expansion. The marked decline in the standard of living over even just the past several years should raise suspicion at those looking away from the present in the name of proclaiming that soon it’s really going to be bad.
Notwithstanding their sci-fi entertainment value, attempts to forecast doomsday scenarios preclude a meaningful apprehension of the horrors of the present. Raoul Vaneigem writes in Revolution of Everyday Life that whatever the future brings, it will be natural, as it will be ours. Indeed, while many take famous dystopian novels like Huxley's Brave New World as dire warnings to be heeded, they can be more critically appreciated, it has been noted, as caricaturized depictions of the present. Fixating on a non-existent future displaces attention from critical analysis to feelings of dread. What gets lost is that, boom or bust, daily life for most people today is one of toil, suffering, alienation and pain, if not worse. The challenge should not be to try to wake the somnolent with chimeras of ever worsening suffering, but to denaturalize the present until it becomes apparent and unbearable. The nightmare is already with us. If that is not understood then that is the problem.
This article appears in Fifth Estate, Summer 2008.
On this edition of the serial programme "Conversations with History", UC Berkeley's Harry Kreisler welcomes social theorist Manuel Castells, Professor of Sociology and Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, to discuss identity and change in the network society.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Will the upsurge in activity around climate change and the food crisis repeat the cycle of the movement of movements over the past decade – momentary visibility then dissolution? Harry Halpin and Kay Summer say ‘yes’, unless different models of organising are embraced.
“Then perhaps we would discover that ‘organisational miracles’ are always happening, and have always been happening.”
- Mario Tronti
How do we organise ourselves to achieve our political aims? It is an age-old question, with the answer often revolving around two poles of attraction, the centralised cadre versus the decentralised loose network. The centralised cadres are well-known: the classic political Party models from the Bolsheviks to the US neo-conservatives and even most trade unions are diverse in many respects but all have some organisational features in common: a tight core bound together by common ideology and a clear leadership structure. In contrast the decentralised network is a looser cluster of individuals, often with no coherent agreement on politics, who gather together based on affinity to take some form of action. This form was exemplified by the shut-down of the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999, and the emergence of the movement behind it. Of course, most political organisations mix aspects of both the centralised and decentralised models of organisation, balancing the benefits and problems of these two broad forms of organising. But this is usually the lens through which our debates and subsequent actions are viewed.
Let’s take a recent historical example. Almost ten years ago, protests at global summits in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere pushed resistance to the project of neo-liberalism centre stage. New spaces to discuss moving beyond ‘summit hopping’ were formed, the ‘social forums’. Heated debates pitted what became known as the ‘horizontals’, those who distrusted hierarchy and pushed for this movement of movements to be a flat decentralised network, against the ‘verticals’ who wanted lines of authority so political demands and action plans could be decided and stated with clarity and the apparent ‘weight’ of large numbers of people. Both tendencies have benefits and problems: cadres have the ability to take action very quickly and can project a strength far greater than their numbers, while they inevitably fail when their ‘leadership’ is either disabled or stops acting in the best interest of the network. Decentralised networks of groups or individuals have benefits of wider participation, because they need less political agreement. Yet this form of organising poses problems as well, for as soon as the issue that people coalesced around is resolved, or appears less relevant, the informal ‘leaders’ disappear; or as the wider movement loses momentum, the decentralised network as a whole dissolves, and so loses its ability to co-ordinate action and move beyond the set of conditions that caused the loose network to coalesce in the first place. With hindsight, neither idealised form succeeded, nor some amalgam of the two. How do we know they didn’t succeed? Unfortunately today this movement rarely acts with the life it once had; the ritualised summit spectacles and social forums appear less relevant with every new cycle. Both tendencies failed to keep experimenting and innovating as they began to move the world, and so in turn the world moved onwards without them.
Can we break this lens through which we see political organising? Can we stop these two extremes, these poles of attraction, pulling us in two directions? Several have tried before. The Zapatista Army in Chiapas, Mexico, has been instrumental in altering our perceptions of political organising, but given their historical lineage from a guerrilla army with their own territory in areas remote from state control, their unusual situation has had limited impact on changing our views on concrete organisational problems. The other major attempt has been to invoke the concept of the ‘multitude’, outlined by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in Empire. Yet this too has broadly failed to alter our view on organising, because the multitude remains a vague and ill-defined term, often used almost mystically: with globalisation there is no ‘outside’ of capitalism, and therefore all resistance to it is similarly globalised into a linked-together ‘multitude’. We can all see ourselves as part of the multitude, yet still argue as either ‘verticals’ or ‘horizontals’ about what we do politically today or tomorrow. The multitude is, to us, more metaphor than tool. So we take a different, complementary, approach. We analyse the organisation of successful complex networks that may be analogous to the kinds of complex networks that our political organisations tend to become. By doing this we hope to clarify what general principles define a well-functioning network. Then we can seek to implement these general principles to confer similar desirable traits in our political networks. It’s time to learn what we can from the science of networks.
We can analyse the structure of things as diverse as political parties, natural ecosystems, trade unions, decentralised networks of political groups and individuals, the world’s financial architecture, and the internet, if we recognise that they are all essentially networks. A network consists of connections between otherwise disparate elements, which are called the nodes of the network. The architecture of these connections – exactly which node is connected to which other node – determines the structure of the network, and these structures can vary immensely. In a social movement setting, nodes could be of different types, which might be individuals, groups, social centres and websites. Within the movement of movements, the verticals and the horizontals, the parties and the loose collectives are all networks. They all have connections of otherwise disparate elements.
Moving up a level of abstraction, mathematical descriptions of different networks can help us to understand the similarities in architecture across very different sorts of networks. Simple characteristics such as the number of connections per node can be quantified, and shown to lead to different ‘distributions’ or spreads of network architecture. Moving beyond traditional political networks, understanding networks like ecosystems allows us to look at what characteristics render a network robust in the face of an attack. This is because ecological networks have survived eons of change — continental drift, climate fluctuations, and the arrival of new species — so any constancies in structure provide clues about which characteristics of complex networks correlate with a high degree of longevity in a changing world. In addition, ecosystems are a byword for efficiency, as the flow of energy through ecosystems has been honed by millions of years of evolution. The world’s financial architecture may also prove useful to study: not only is it a human-made artefact, but it has been successfully evolving for over 500 years and today spans the globe (of course, whether or not it survives another century is an open question). What we need to explain is what unites these ‘successful’ networks.
In any network, some nodes are more connected than others, making them ‘hubs’. This is a recurring pattern in the evolution of successful networks, ranging from the world wide web to many natural ecosystems. A ‘hub’ is not just a node with a few more connections than a usual node; a hub has connections to many other nodes – many quite distant – and also connects many disparate nodes (nodes of very different types). If you were to count all the connections each node has, you would get a mathematical distribution called a ‘power-law’ distribution with relatively few hyper-connected nodes – hubs – and a ‘long tail’ of less connected nodes. This is quite different from any egalitarian ‘levelling’ that leads to a ‘flat’ distribution, as well as from the ‘normal’ distribution where the majority of the distribution is clustered in the middle, forming the well-known ‘bell’ curve. It’s also different from a ‘centralised’ model of connections where everyone is connected only to a few nodes and not to their neighbours, which results in the ‘exponential’ distribution. Figure 1 (not shown here) shows the difference between the power-law and ‘normal’ (‘random’) distributions graphically. The power-law distribution is what results in both a long tail and hubs.
Unlike networks that have a normal or random distribution of connections, networks that have a power-law distribution of connections are ‘scale-free,’ which means that no matter how many more nodes are added to the network, the dynamics and structure remain the same. This seems to be a sweet spot in the evolution of networks for stability and efficiency. The network can get bigger without drastic changes to its function. Figure 2 (not shown here) gives a graphic representation of a ‘scale-free’ network.
The network theorist Albert-László Barabási uses the metaphor of height to understand a power-law distribution. Imagine that the amount of connections you had in a network influenced your height, so the more connections you had, the taller you would be. In the real world, average height does not vary that much: there are a few short people and a few tall people, with the rest clustered around the middle. If height followed a power-law distribution, the vast majority of people would be in the ‘long tail’ and have the same height, but a few people would be thousands of feet tall!
The question is: why do successful networks evolve these hubs, these few very densely connected nodes? Hubs are useful for the survival of a network since they allow distant local clusters of the network to be connected. Imagine sending a letter from London to Japan through a centralised postal network. All letters would have to go through one routing hub in, say, New York, and this single hub would be vulnerable to overloading. It’s also not very efficient – sending a letter from London to Paris would have to be routed through New York! Now imagine sending the letter through a network that consisted only of dense, local connections with no hubs, a totally decentralised network – it would take a long time, since the message would have to hop from one small connection to another. However, in a network with several hubs, you’d have direct long-distance connections from London to Mumbai to Japan that are in turn coupled with local connections, so the message would arrive quickly and be less prone to disruption (if London to Mumbai were down, London to Beijing and then to Japan would do just as well). Hubs allow everyone to be connected to everyone through a few short steps – the ‘small world’ effect. Now replace the idea of a letter travelling through the postal system with patterns of behaviour, tactics, strategies, and it should be clear that hubs are useful for political networks.
In the context of the celebration of ‘horizontality’ that characterised the emergence of the alterglobalisation movement, some consider the evolution of hubs per se to be a sign of centralisation, and therefore tend to try to avoid them. Others might want control of a single hub and so they sabotage emerging hubs as potential competitors, a tendency that was all too visible in the UK anti-war movement. Both sets of fears are wrong: successful networks almost always naturally evolve several or many important hubs. If you were to compile a list of the most popular internet sites, you’d notice a few of them (Google, Yahoo, eBay) have the vast majority of the connections, while most sites have just a few. Note the redundancy: Google does the job of Yahoo, and vice versa. There is no one omnipotent leader. Nothing is indispensable. This pattern is not just repeated across the internet – it applies across a remarkably diverse set of systems, ranging from human languages to social networks of sexual promiscuity, as well as ecological and financial networks. In each we find a small number of highly-connected nodes, many less-connected nodes, and massive redundancy. These recurrent patterns across diverse networks tell us something about the characteristics our social movements need to evolve to have robust, efficient and effective networks.
Politically, hubs are easy to spot. There seem to be a few people in every network who do a vast amount of the work, a few people with connections seemingly everywhere. In our experience across quite diverse political movements, people exert a good deal of effort trying to suppress new hubs because they view them as signs of centralisation, or because they wish to maintain their own status as ‘hubs.’ However, the evolution of new hubs appears to be a hallmark of maturity in long-lasting networks. And of course hubs don’t have to be people, but can be places, like social centres, and events, like the protests at world summits and ‘social forums’.
There is a looming contradiction: how can we have hubs and still have a strong network of dense connections that is not dependent on them? Don’t hubs lead to the emergence of permanent, entrenched leaders, centralisation and other well-documented problems? There is something of a tension here: the point is not simply that we should develop hubs, but that we have to simultaneously ensure that the hubs are never allowed to become static, and that they’re at least partially redundant. Sounds complicated, but healthy and resilient networks aren’t characterised simply by the presence of hubs, but also by the ability of hubs to change over time, and the replacement of previous hubs by apparently quite similar hubs. Think about search engines on the web: Google wasn’t always a key hub – once upon a time that role was played by Alta Vista, Lycos, and others whose names are now forgotten.
While the presence of some hubs helps a network, a single or even a few hubs by themselves are a liability unless local connections are dense and new hubs are emerging in the rest of the network. The fact that a single node is not connected to a huge number of other nodes does not mean it is not important for the health of the network. Far from it, for it is precisely the density and power of the connections of the nodes in the ‘long tail’ that are the ‘heart’ of the network: taken together, their connections far outweigh the impact of the key hubs combined.
The long tail does not drop off into nothingness (which would be the ‘exponential’ rather than ‘power-law’ distribution), where there are a few hubs and every other node has almost no connections. Instead, the long tail is extensive, consisting of small groups of dense connections, going ever onwards. In fact, the vast majority of the connections in the network are not in the hub, but in the long tail. One clear example is that of book-selling in the 21st century: the majority of Amazon.com’s book sales are not in the best-seller list, but in those millions of titles in the long tail that only a few people order. Every successful movement must be built on dense local connections. It is these dense local connections that support the dynamic creation of hubs.
In a perfect world, every node would be a hub – we would all easily connect with any other person and be able to communicate. However, creating connections takes time and energy, so nodes that are more long-standing or just have more spare time will naturally become hubs. This isn’t rocket science: people who have been involved in social movement networks longer tend to become the most well-connected, as do people who have more time to spend on the cause of the network, such as people who have escaped working full-time. Of course, few people can escape working full-time forever, and few remain indefinitely involved. How can a social movement not be dependent on any one particular hub, or set of hubs? The answer appears to be a matter of existing hubs actively supporting the long tail, encouraging new people to in turn become hubs, by introducing them to other connections, and never forgetting that everyone should be encouraged to be as locally connected as possible. A successful network has both a dense long tail, with as many hubs as possible that collectively and redundantly span the entire network, and hubs whose massive number of connections bridge otherwise disparate parts of the network.
Hubs tend to evolve naturally in well-functioning networks – but we can accelerate the process of network development. Unfortunately people can’t become hubs without largely re-inventing the wheel. It might be irritating for existing hubs, but it’s true. Being a hub requires more than just introductions, it requires information, skills, knowledge, and a memory of the past. However, we can accelerate this process by decentring as much of the connections and knowledge as possible away from individual humans and onto the environment, whether this environment be books, websites, songs, maps, videos, and a myriad of yet un-thought-of representational forms. A useful example is the pheromone trace of the ant, reinforced as more ants use a particular trail. The mere act of ‘leaving a trail’ shows how individuals with limited memory can use the shaping of the environment as an external memory. You can imagine this on an individual level: a person using their mobile phone to remember the phone numbers of their friends. With easy access and reliability, the phone almost seems part of your intelligence. Just extend this so that the part of your mind that is extended into the environment is accessible and even modifiable by other people, and collective intelligence begins.
The human equivalent of the pheromone trace is nothing less than ‘culture’ itself. Most aspects of culturally embedded collective intelligence in the environment, ranging from the evolution of cities to Wikipedia, allow us to navigate the world around us, a world formed collectively by those treading paths before us. This use of the environment to store collective intelligence allows for the easier creation of hubs. It has a number of advantages over direct individual-to-individual communications, as there is no need for simultaneous presence, so interaction can be asynchronous, and individuals can even be anonymous and unaware of each other. Collective intelligence allows highly organised successful actions to be performed by individuals who, with limited memory and knowledge, would otherwise be unable to become hubs. So when a hub is destroyed – for example when an individual leaves the network – a new hub can be equipped with knowledge as soon as possible.
Over the last decade, some of the currents of the global movements, particularly those in the global North, have been radically deficient at producing collective intelligence, leading to a genuine gap in passing knowledge and abilities to the influx of people engaged in the politics of climate change and the food crisis. Collective intelligence requires a commons of collective representations and memory accessible to the network, and so digital representations on the internet are ideal. Indymedia was a step towards this type of collective intelligence for many of these currents, but its focus on ‘reporting’ rather than analysis has reduced its use as a mechanism for passing on knowledge. Again, this seems to have arisen because of a misplaced fear of hubs.
A key focus for improving our collective intelligence would be a few central websites compiling analyses of social movements and events, alongside practical pieces from key hubs and organisers on how particular events were pulled off. A collective ratings approach would allow people to quickly find needles in the electronic haystack, via Digg-It-style ‘I like this article’ tags, or collaborative bookmarking, allowing different users to see each other’s bookmarked webpages. Of course some of these types of things exist, with tagging systems well developed on sites of magazines, newspapers and blogs. However, no current website performs the function of an analysis and learning hub, as Indymedia does for news. There are other effective technologies for creating collective intelligence, such as wikis for text editing and textmob for coordinating street action, but much work needs to be done to develop, explore and deploy these tools.
While struggles wax and wane, it is clear that the gloriously misnamed ‘anti-globalisation’ movement is declining while a new movement, which we call the ‘climate change’ movement is growing. Both can be considered separate moments in a greater ‘movement of movements’. The question of climate change gives relatively fixed time-constraints before we reach various ‘tipping points’ in the Earth’s climate system – major sea-level rises displacing cities and their inhabitants, droughts making agriculture difficult, and so on – which most of humanity will find difficult or impossible to adapt to. Perhaps this realisation will allow us to move beyond organisational panic and tired arguments over centralised and decentralised models of organising, and ground our organisational experiments in studies of existing and successful networks. If we are to act swiftly and sustain momentum we will need to create collective intelligence – the ability to create accurate records of events, distribute them widely, analyse success and failure, and to pass on skills and knowledge. This is what the emerging climate change movement must aggressively focus on.
Nobody knows the precise dynamics of what actions will change the world, but we do know that any social movement will fail to head off catastrophic climate change if it sticks solely to the politics of climate change. With food riots on three continents and spiralling energy costs worldwide, changes in the weather are taking a backseat to basic questions of people getting the food and energy they want. These crises are sign-posts to the defining issues of international solidarity and justice in the 21st century: how does humanity allocate finite resources globally? The reason is simple: scientist Jared Diamond has calculated that the average amount of food, energy, metal and plastic consumption by an individual in Western Europe and the United States is approximately thirty-two times that of an average individual of the rest of the planet. Simple maths shows that as the rest of the world moves towards resource use levels that mirror average levels in the UK, US and Germany, this would use the resources equivalent to a global population of 72 billion, against a current world population of almost 6.5 billion. This isn’t physically possible – even the most frenzied capitalist would run out of world to exploit – so something fundamental must shift.
Some, seeing millions of people getting on planes, into boats, or walking to the global North every year, will call for the shift to be to even more xenophobic border control policies. Others, seeing the life-system-threatening impact of such resource depletion, will welcome a ‘khaki-green’ or eco-fascist authoritarian state. These symptoms of the general structural instability of capitalism will increase with time: there is now a brief window of opportunity – a moment outside ‘normal’ time – where a network of social movements can actively form and radically reshape the world. To do so successfully, future movements must consciously try to avoid two distinct fates: either the dissolution into a decentralised network of loose clusters of relatively isolated groups, movements and individuals – the fate of the summit-hopping phase of the movement of movements – or a decline towards a centralised network of cadres, which severely damaged the movement in the Sixties. Our lines of flight from these dead-ends consist in wilfully pushing ourselves to learn from successful networks and evolve towards a mature distributed network with abundant hubs and a powerful long tail: a movement with both mass participation and dynamic hubs of people and events, capable of evolving and responding rapidly to a fast-changing world. A tall order – perhaps – yet the alternative is bleak indeed.
Key messages for political networks
• Encourage people to become hubs
• Develop other hubs, with dense connections to lots of distant nodes
• Hub redundancy is important – don’t worry about duplicating functions
• Let hubs evolve
• Focus on the long tail: have more limited interactions with the greatest number of people and places
Harry Halpin and Kay Summer have both had longtime involvement in the movement of movements and some of its precursors. They earn their wages by doing scientific research, some of which involves trying to better understand network organisation. You can get in touch with the authors at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.