Technopolitics and the Living Resource System


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Pablo Benson-Silva
Pablo Benson-Silva is the Director of Membership and Communications at the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, the trade association of worker-owned business in the New York metropolitan area and the local affiliate of the USFWC. Born and raised in San Juan Puerto Rico, he moved to the New York City more than a decade ago. He is also a collaborator at Movement Netlab, a cooperatively governed think-do-learn tank on network social movements. Since summer 2017, Pablo serves on the Board of Directors of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. He studied Sociology at the University of Puerto Rico and at the New School for Social Research and more than occasionally dabbles in teaching.

How do you see the evolution, both immediate and in the future, of these organizations?

I believe that the institutional insertion of social movements is already starting to happen. In the wake of network social movements like 15M in Spain, you are starting to see efforts at translating a “network sensibility” into electoral politics. Such is the case with the new municipalist movements. These municipalist campaigns, that successfully took power in several cities across the Spanish state in 2015 including Madrid and Barcelona, have been experimenting with new methodologies of political participation like in-person neighborhood assemblies, online platforms to crowdsource their political program, strict ethical codes, etc; and campaigned under the promise, that once in power they were committed to enhancing civilian participation, transparency, and civic accountability beyond the narrow confines of the ballot box.

Even in the US, the Bernie Sanders campaign signaled an opening to a different form of electoral politics. The most interesting thing that happened around his campaign–which sadly was a wasted opportunity because they hired a traditional campaign manager that completely misread the chain of events that led to Sander’s improbable run– was all the decentralized self-organizing that made it possible in the first place. The initial call for Bernie to run came out of a signature drive started by folks in the Occupy network. The folks behind People for Bernie are some of  the same folks who opened the Facebook page for Occupy Wall Street and who built that momentum a year before he considered becoming a democratic party candidate.

The Bernie campaign lost a lot of opportunities to engage with network social movements and new methodologies in a serious way. For example, before Bernie publicly announced his candidacy, we received through our network a copy of his political platform with something like 12 points. It was like: “here is the platform,” like Moses with the tablets, “here it is, take it”. This approach is still stuck in the logic of old school politics.

We immediately noticed the glaring absence of a racial justice plank on the platform. At that time, Black Lives Matter was the center of gravity of social movement momentum, it was where everything was happening. We said look: this is an opportunity, why not do a “crowd drafting” process for a racial justice proposal, because you shouldn’t be the one writing it, you are a white man, give folks the opportunity to co-create this agenda through a collaborative process. I think if they had started with that from the beginning, with a sincere gesture to listen and collaborate and had experimented with that, they would have avoided what happened at Netroots. All the “bird dogging”, interrupting a speaker when they are talking, that happened during the first months of his campaign by BLM activist that were rightly indignant about his silence –they could have nipped that in the bud, but they didn’t because they were so heavily invested in the conventional wisdom that it’s the campaign/candidate role to create the platform in a very top down fashion.

They lost critical time to build bonds of trust with these new network social movements. Once the campaign began to pick up steam, and suddenly a decentralized network movement sprung out around the campaign, that was when they began realizing that they need engage with them more intentionally, but by then it was too late. Don’t get me wrong, they did open the field of possibilities for insurgent candidates. But moving forward we need to look at this through another lens, through a different strategic framework.

The problem with the institutional leap in the United States are that the rules, the electoral system is so different state by state, make it almost impossible to run nationally on a third party ticket. The pragmatic alternative is to mount an electoral insurgency within an existing party as Bernie did. The problem is the institutional resistance that insurgent and grassroots candidates face in the democratic party.   The closest we have to that kind of infrastructure needed to support a progressive wave of electoral insurgents, is the Working Families Party, which was created by unions over a decade ago, and who has started to open chapters in different states. I believe they are already at seven or nine. They are exploring some of these participatory methodologies, but we’re still a far ways to go.

We are now in the uncomfortable integration of two worldviews and two ways of thinking about the world that are completely different. And I also understand the intersection, in terms of foundations and this new way of accumulating energy around issues. What are you are seeing that’s interesting in these evolutions, these first steps and new experiments?

We find ourselves in a unique historical moment. During the sixties after the success of the civil rights movement, a template was created for how to organize a movement and it was based on social movement organization. They had CORE, SNCC, the SLC, the NAACP. All working together in a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes advantageous coalition.

The idea was this: if we want to create a movement, if we want to take ownership over an issue, we have to build an organization. And that became the dominant model after the 1960’s. They were designed to sustain a very specific type of activism, at a very specific historical juncture. Paid activism that is incorporated within a 501c3, a non-profit that is supported by private donations and foundation grants. The need to secure funding might make organizations risk averse around the methods they use to advance their demands, they might privilege overly cautious advocacy campaigns over direct action, for example. Today, most of the social movement energy is coming from mass decentralized network social movements, not from the carefully crafted campaigns from Social Movement Organizations. Even the ways social movements mobilize resources is changing into what my colleague Allan Frimpong calls “the living resource system”, and it requires a deep reconceptualization of the dominant approach to funding movements. In these movements “meaning” and mutualist exchange are highly valued currencies. Dumping money into organizations during movement moments and imposing transactional logics around “deliverables” and “impact” can be very disruptive.

That traditional approach to resourcing also totally excludes emergent formations, which in many cases are the groups that are the most innovative, creative, courageous, precisely because they lack the fiscal infrastructure favored by funders.

In the United States, in fear of being caught flat-footed, organizations and institutions are realizing they have to do things differently if they want to channel the political momentum.

But I believe that if we think intentionally– “this is the transformation that is happening, how can we strategically position ourselves with regards to this?”–we can avoid some of the problems of previous models.

There are certainly many similar mechanisms here, but what about alternative methods of disseminating information and self-organizing? Because your Facebook can be a double-edged sword, tracking who are your friends, with whom you communicate.

Indeed, it is very important that networks are not new, networks have existed since before media technology, the “underground railroad” was a network, the technopolitics of its time. We are just in a new techno-political era. We do not need technology to create “authorized” networks. What is enabling these new technologies is that suddenly we have all this data on the network and we can suddenly see it with a new perspective.

Facebook is collecting all this data, all of your interactions and that suddenly gives Facebook an incredible power to see the “bigger picture”. That’s what is fundamentally changing. The other thing is the democratization of self-representation. The selfie, besides being a bonfire of vanity, is also a field of techno-political training. People are suddenly projecting themselves to the world. My friends twelve-year-old niece posts a photo and suddenly forty of her friends are commenting. That expands, whether she’s aware of it or not, what she considers her impact on the world and other people. I think it is this double combination of factors is what has made this culture fated for this explosion of activism.

On the topic of the international within what is happening, surely you know of the “Yo soy 132”. It’s been very interesting to reflect on it for us in Mexico, and suddenly see something that was born out of such momentum, with such force, but which hasn’t necessarily been able to make an institutional impact, or a longitudinal shift as we might say.

At the international level, and in Mexico, with Ayotzinapa, I believe there was a learning curve. Ayotzinapa has endured in a way that “I am 132” did not. But they are interconnected networks. It is not like Ayotzinapa came out of nowhere; it was integrated on an international level. There were Ayotzinapa groups all around the world. Occupy and BLM networks became part of it so fast, solidarity actions happened immediately. There were actions every day. They established networks in NYC. I even got arrested for Ayotzinapa in front of the Mexican consulate.

And it went much higher: the impunity of the state and all the problems Ayotzinapa is denouncing are much more systematic problems about the crisis of institutions in Mexico. But it is opening up ground for the current consensus as a break from legitimacy. Enrique Peña Nieto has a lot to do with the ground that they’ve gained.

It has given us a lot of raw material.

But that is other thing! Before those things could be hidden, you could spin them, and now with these networks there is much more decentralized accountability, or what we call swarm accountability.

How do you think governments should be attempting to rethink themselves in consideration of what is happening now? What would you take into account?

It’s what they must do. They are in crisis from all sides. In the last election in the US, they had the lowest participation rate since World War II. The participation rate in Brexit was also low. These figures show a multinational deficit in democracy as it really exists. We used to talk about “real existenting socialism” to distinguish its from it platonic ideal, and today we have to talk about “real existing representative democracy”, and distinguish it from the social practices that are already being woven and pose alternatives to that old form of representative democracy.

What we’re seeing is now is the growth of global neoconservatism; in France, Hungary, the USA, everywhere. Part of that is a crisis of institutions. Institutions have to reinvent themselves, or this indignation, frustration and anxiety is going to be channeled through some fanciful reactionary leader. And I think that’s the problem. Now I sound very dramatic, but yes, I believe these institutions either reinvent themselve or they die. And the Left needs own the bottom-up re-imagining of political participation and the radicalization of democracy, or it will cede the ground to fascism.

This is urgent. Liberal and moderate politicians are hoping for everything to go back to normal, back to the familiar political terrain that made sense to the consultant class.  To pretend that the disruption caused by the current techno-political era is just a fluke, and level heads will once again prevail. That all these social practices that are emerging and are weaving themselves into the social fabric disappear–that is a fantasy. The movement or political institutional arrangements that manage to capture this network sensibility as new found source of legitimacy will be an unstoppable force.