The Sound of 60 Hands Clapping – Examples of Probably Dysfunctional Political Movements (Occupy, Greens, anti-Foreclosure) and Towards an Ecology of Activism, Capable of Surpassing Tipping Points
The is a meta diary. I’m not going to take the time to write too much.
In mathematics and physics, there’s 2 distinct ways of teaching a subject. One is basically a “polished” approach, where you start by stating directly what you want to prove or show, and then doing so. The other involves first motivating your final destination point, by pointing to some mystery, some partial result, a real or apparent contradiction, etc.
I’ve been thinking about writing a diary or two about what I will probably call an “ecology of activism”. Activists are supposed to lead the charge to fix problems of mainstream society. In order to fix deeply entrenched, powerfully ‘maintained’, and even systemic problems, one would hope that activists be as efficient as possible.
I will probably try and write a diary or two on what I think an ecologically fit activism would look like, but in this diary I’m just going to point to a couple of recent examples that, I would have hoped, would tip people off that they are not heading down a “happy path”, one of great efficiency. They are probably heading down the path of marginalized futility.
If people do not think that they are performing at far below their potential, then they will not have much motivation for becoming more efficient.
In this diary, I want to (briefly) motivate my readers (all 5 of you – you know who you are!) to see if they think that there have to be better ways to go about things. If they conclude that there has to be better ways, then, hopefully, they will start trying to figure out what those better ways might be.
I’ll also make a few numerical assumptions, which I’m not going to argue much. All assumptions regard minimal targets for political muscle, to achieve a tipping point, and all involve manpower.
Protest movements which target the government must be very large, and persistent, to force it to respond positively to demands. We saw these two conditions – large and persistent – met during the anti-Vietnam War marches and demonstrations. We saw large demonstrations against the Iraq War, but once the war began, these fizzled out.
Another way to exert political muscle involves electoral threats. In an off Presidential election year, you can guarantee a ‘firing’ of an incumbent, in many contests, by showing up in a primary, with fellow citizens that number only about 20% of the registered Democrats or Republicans in your district/state. Your D/R neighbors will only constitute about 25%-35% of eligible voters. So a lower bound target for throwing a monkey wrench into any given D/R primary is only about one out of 15 eligible voters.
Clictivism and petition signing, unaccompanied by credible electoral threats, will typically accomplish nothing (except in the special case that they’re related to referenda with real political, legal force behind them), no matter how many clictivists, petition signers you round up. That’s because the “transaction cost” is too low.
Speaking of “transaction costs”
I’m aware of this phrase is from the book about social networking, called “Here Comes Everybody”. So, really, my assumptions are not just numerical – they also touch on a 2nd dimension, that of “transaction costs” (of participation.) If transaction costs are too low, people will tend to ignore you, because they know that your activism cost you very little, so probably doesn’t imply any other serious pushback. Such activism is sort of like this funny video of a lazy cat having a “paw fight”, while laying down, with another lazy cat.
If your Congress critter looks at you like these lazy cats, you may provide him with some laughs (behind your back), but you will have no effect on his/her behavior.
Activist Scenario #1
Yesterday I attended a meeting of local (Newark, NJ) activists, called “People’s Organization for Progress”. One well-spoken man talked about the housing and foreclosure crisis. Part of his approach involved getting people to sign a petition. Another part involved (IIRC) squatting in houses that were foreclosed on.
There was no indication that this well-informed man had considered the utility of a petition as a form of activism, because the transaction cost of signing it is basically nothing, even if the transaction cost of getting physical pieces of paper signed by many different people is, mechanically speaking, much harder than doing so using the internet. I.e., there was significant transaction cost for the activist organizers to get the petition signed, but of course, they will be outnumbered by petition signers maybe 100-1. The votes of petition organizers can be readily ignored by any politician who passed 3rd grade mathematics.
There was also no indication that the transaction cost of squatting could be too high to make adoption of this tactic widespread.
Activist Scenario #2
In a video in a diary posted at MyFDL, NPR Debate between Gary Johnson and Jill Stein moderated by Guy Raz of All Things Considered on the economy, health care & the role of gov’t, Cheri Honakala gives a talk, where she says something like the “next President Jill Stein blah blah”. The audience is not shown, but it sounds like less than 20 people are cheering and clapping. (That’s less than 40 hands, for those of you mathematically challenged. 🙂 ) Getting a much more modest 5% of voters voting Green in a general election, which is obviously more doable, would guarantee $20 Million Federal matching funding in 2016 for the Greens, and would pose a large threat to the Democrats (forcing them to react, if it had been earlier in the election cycle, anyway; teaching them a lesson, even at this late date). Getting a more modest 1/15 eligible adults to commit to throwing a monkey wrench in the well oiled, D/R primary machinery is not mentioned, either.
Activist Scenario #3
Occupy Austin tries to re-establish an encampment. Doesn’t go well (which was completely predictable). I post the following comment:
I have a question for you. If you had to choose between having an occupation consisting of 100 “encampers”, vs. having a daytime “occupation” that involved 300 “non-encampers” who occupied the same public area during daylight and evening hours (say 9am – 9pm), which would you choose?
I don’t see the point of fighting for illegal encampments, when the same energy could be applied to creating a larger public presence.
1) People who have jobs are likely not going to join an encampment.
2) People who have children are not going to risk arrest, since they can’t discharge parental responsibilities when they’re in jail
3) Enthusiastic, full time (= 40 hr/week) occupiers could have their housing needs met by non-full time Occupy sympathizers
4) Not-so-enthusiastic, full time (= 40 hr/week) occupiers (those who are jobless and/or homeless against their will) could have their housing needs met by non-full time Occupy sympathizers
IMO, insisting on encampments is a losing strategy. When the unemployment rate goes to 40% and 20% of Americans are starving, sure, you might be able to force through encampments in public areas. What if America doesn’t decay to something like Greece-like status for another 20 years? Why would anybody want to expend energy on a tactic more appropriate to a significantly worse situation than America is currently in, and thus not pursue other opportunities and low hanging fruit?* Besides the direct cost, what is the opportunity cost of pursuing encampments?
Using concepts discussed in “Here Comes Everybody” and “Bowling Alone”, Occupy X’s did not create much social capital, and the “transaction cost” of being an occupier (encamper) was/is too high.
I have recently released a beta web site, occupypublicspaces.org, which not only facilitates legal gatherings in public spaces (assuming mini-march organizers plan their mini-marches such that they terminate in the same area, at the same time), but also makes it a bit easier to facilitate people wanting to be “full time occupiers” (i.e., full time activists), by allowing them to declare themselves as “housing distressed” and “Open to Full-time Activism”.
* The fact that encampments lasted as long as they did, was largely a function of their novelty. The PTB were caught, unprepared. The sentiment expressed by the mayor of Oakland – that she will never allow encampments, again – is probably typical of other mayors.
No answer. A more fundamental question, though, is “Why didn’t Occupy Austin activists think of these questions, themselves, and post their reasoning as to their conclusions?”
The picture in the diary shows about 30 Occupy activists, in a city that had a population of 1/2 million in the 80’s.
The sound of 30 people clapping will be exactly the sound of 60 hands clapping.
With apologies to Bob Dylan,
The question, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind
The question is blowin’ in the wind
And that question is: “What is wrong with this picture?”
More generally, “What do YOU people think is wrong with these scenarios?”