1. A lesson from Ralph Nader (and his opponents.)
Two examples Ralph Nader often cites of successful funding initiatives are Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs) and campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs).
CUBs are formed when an insert is placed in the electric-telephone-gas company billing envelope inviting people to join with fellow rate-payers in a watchdog group. Why did the utility companies fight tooth and nail against CUBs, even though the insert in the billing envelope cost them nothing in postage?
To take another example, campus-based PIRGs have fought for and sometimes won the right to receive funding based on a line item on the campus student fee statement. This means that students are completely free to either pay the fee, or to opt out. They may opt out at the time of registration, and they may also do so later by applying for a refund. Why have many university administrations and conservative groups fought tooth and nail against this completely voluntary system which after all, allows any student who does not wish their fee to support PIRG, to opt out?
The reason university administrators fight adamantly against such modest measures is precisely the fact that they are modest but very effective and potentially extremely powerful tools. Similarly power companies fight so hard against inserts because they too are very effective.
It is worth asking what it is that makes these structures so effective.
|"The question of why people don't save more money is a hot topic in academic circles. A third of eligible 401(k) participants never sign up ..The solution..is to do, well, nothing If you make 401(k) enrollment automatic - new hires must opt out, not in - those who do nothing still save" (Of course, we are not suggesting people would have to opt out or else be forced to contribute; rather the point is that, once you have someone willing to contribute, automating it can make a big difference) Another quote: "With autopilot..inertia works for you instead of against you. Since people aren't inclined to take action, very few..will choose to drop out."|
A key lesson is that "Overhead matters" -- quite a bit -- in fund raising. Overhead meaning the massive door-to-door efforts that are made unnecessary, for one thing. Such efforts are far more difficult for a grassroots citizen group than for a power company with deep pockets (filled with cash from, who else, utility payers) to pay for a massive P.R. campaign, lawyers, etc. It is similarly a very time consuming task to try to raise funds at a campus for a PIRG by trying to educate each student separately.
It is extremely powerful to have that CUB insert delivered right there to the utility payer, at the very moment (seeing their bill) when it has their greatest attention. This allows citizens to judge based on the merits of the CUB, and on their own best interest. This is what the outcome should be based on, rather than on the fact that the utility can out-spend individual citizen and small grassroots groups by a factor of gazillion to one. Indeed, it is quite effective. As Nader points out in the case of Illinois, the CUB, "with a little over $1 million budget..it negotiated a $1.3 billion refund from Commonwealth Edison to families in northern Illinois because of a misallocation of cost onto the backs of rate payers instead of onto the backs of investments by that giant utility. Image the return on the investment there."
If you have a mechanism for people to automatically join your cause, in a way which makes is plain, simple, quick, and easy to say "no thanks," then you have something even more powerful. Because the default is joining. Although opting out is both quick and easy, the time and effort and mental decision that need to be made by those who do wish to support the PIRG is even less: it is zero. Overhead matters.
Another example is voter registration. This is why the Right opposes ways of simplifying it, making it easier, faster. A stronger measure (and a country calling itself a democracy deserves to give itself no less) would be to have every citizen automatically be registered to vote, using Social Security Numbers, for example. Why can it be certain that the Right would oppose automatic registration of all voters? Because overhead matters. Eliminating the work that goes into registering to vote would mean eliminating significant overhead.
All of this is well and good, but what have we learned? As worthy as those causes are, this paper is not about supporting PIRGs, CUBs, or about simplifying or eliminating voter registration.
In the above cases there is powerful opposition. More than that, in these cases we need to overcome this opposition as part of trying to get approval from judges, university administrators, and and legislators. But suppose you had a magic wand which eliminated the "need to get approval" part? Suppose there was another, fourth scenario, similar to the above in eliminating overhead.
Specifically, suppose there was a way to eliminate much of the overhead associated with fund raising in a way which, unlike the cases of PIRGs and CUBs, did not need to obtain approval or permission from anyone -- that you could just go ahead and do it. That is, you could directly implement similar simplification, streamlining, or automation of fund-raising for activist endeavors? If being able to leapfrog over the "getting approval" step would let you get what so many corporations and universities fought tooth and nail to thwart, would that be a worthwhile endeavors? If you believe it would be, then read on...
2. Fund-raising and Intelligent Donations
Before suggesting solutions, let us clarify the issues in this section, and in the next highlight what needs to be fixed. To the examples above we add another, from admittedly ominous source.
How often have you seen the phrase "it's fast! And it's easy!" in a corporate advertisement? Or online, "Just click here!" and "Instant [fill in the blank]" Countless times no doubt. Why? Because it's very effective.
Achieving "opposite" goals.
Do we wish to emulate the corporate paradigm of making it easier and easier to click on eye-candy which is content-free without putting any thought behind it? Of course not.
The question is how to help people make informed, thought-out and meaningful decisions in such a way that while a good deal of mental effort might have justifiably gone into arriving at a decision, executing it can be done with a minimum of time and effort spent. Not all elements of the easy-to-click, just-click-to-act model are "evil," in other words.
In fact, it is entirely possible to make fund-raising both more thought-out and to make it more quick-and-easy at the same time. This may seem paradoxical, but it follows from the fact that activist fund raising currently suffers from an insufficient level of each of these.
Indeed, it is not at all impossible for systems to suffer from two "opposite" problems. For example, in housing we think of "privacy" and "community" as opposite values. Yet our current social arrangements are such that most people don't have very little community, while at the same time often have very little privacy, being situated only feet from the traffic stream they face. It is possible to design different ways of living in which people enjoy both more "community" and more "privacy".
Similarly, we can learn to design systems which help in fund-raising -- and more generally, which help with collective financial actions based on communitarian and democratic principles -- which simultaneously allow people more intelligent input, and which also make it easier for them to contribute.
The latter element will help put activist projects and organizations on much more stable and viable financial ground. The former will have an invigorating effect on democratizing the process and facilitating authentic participatory communities which in turn also help ensure long-term viability.
3. Current Fund-raising is a Blunt and Clumsy Tool.
(Case Study: A Music Web Site Tries to Raise funds)
AvalonRadio.com has been trying to survive without any commercials, purely on the basis of contributions. A message at the site invites web visitors to send in a donation of $20 or more in return for two cassette tapes, which simultaneously also supports the station.
Suppose hypothetically that you are a web listener. Perhaps you appreciate AvalonRadio's programming, style, and commercial free format enough to send in a donation. If so, good for you. However just because you (i.e., just because some people) are willing to donate, doesn't mean that the fund raising structure is viable, since it doesn't necessarily imply that enough people will respond, just as the fact that you went ahead and registered to vote, does not imply that the system is ok; it may be that the system is discouraging to large enough a group of potential voters to need changing.
Indeed there are several obstacles to the mass-audience viability of this well intentioned bare-bones internet fund-raising structure.
Several compelling questions and doubts may very reasonably arise in the mind or our hypothetical Avalon listener (call her Linda). For one thing, what is the station goes bust 6 months from now? When Linda decided to send in that donation of $20 (or perhaps even more) she was expecting a year's worth of programming in return, but only got a half year. Or less, if Avalon goes bust in only 3 months. That's one reason why our hypothetical donor Linda might hesitate.
Another reason stems from the fact that Linda presumably believes in commercial free programming. How would she feel if 6 months from now Avalon is still alive, but survives by adding commercials? Linda would probably resent it and feel cheated since her money was intended to support a station which did not air commercials. Even if Avalon only added commercials the following year, Linda might still feel cheated for sending in money this year. After all, she wants her money supporting stations which stay commercial-free.
These possible concerns are merely two examples. So is AvalonRadio.com Let's look beyond the specifics of this radio station, and beyond the two particular examples of donor concerns which reduce the number and amount of donations, and ask more broadly what general lessons we might draw. What important issues are at stake here after all?
4. Democracy and Robust Funding: Synergistic Goals
Fundamentally at stake is democratic input into, and (some) democratic control over the station. . We are already familiar with the difference between "listener run" radio and mainstream NPR styled "listener supported" stations. The issues transcend the specifics of our example (a radio station); they apply to fund-raising for any activist project or organization, scenarios where democratic input is clearly needed -- and this need is obvious even among those who have not yet come to support the notion that media systems in a democracy be fully democratic,
The above scenarios emphasize an additional and often overlooked point, namely that there are important connections between ways of fostering fund-raising models which are more viable and robust, and ways of increasing democratic listener control over a station.
Another point we wish to highlight here is that when the medium in question is the internet, existing as well as emerging technologies can significantly enhance two things: both the prospects of more robust financing of grassroots/activist organization, and democratic input from those contributing financially.
5. Some Proposed Models
Suppose you had a Time Machine and went back to 1970, trying to describe digital watches. The gist of the technology would have fascinated most people. Suppose you then described all the features of a regular digital watch of the sort many wear today -- with time, alarm, hourly chime option, stop-watch, and often count-down alarm and second time zone, and so forth.
This long list would seem "all too complicated; who would want to use such a complex device?" Yet today we take those extra features for granted, and do not feel that digital watches are "too complicated" by having many available features. We use the extra features only if and when they are convenient.
|Not Too Complicated,
Taking a Page from Labor Organizing
More than a year after I wrote this piece, I recalled a story I heard a while ago about an activist tactic which, upon reflection, is actually quite similar conceptually to several of the ideas above of conditional voting, and only two steps away from provisional donations.
I met Zack Exley when I played a small role in helping him keep his "CounterCoup" site running after the 2000 election. Zack is the activist behind such sites as GWBush.com and other political satire and activism sites.
In one extended phone conversation he related to me about his past labor organizing activities. Of course workers are often too intimidated to state that they are "for" a union. What Zack would do -- which appears to be a long established tactic if I understood him correctly -- was that he would take the time to personally visit each worker in his or her home and meet with them.
During that meeting he would come to ask a question that went something like this: "if a majority of workers in your company were ready to say yes to a union, would you be in favor of a union as well, and be willing to vote or publicly declare your support, too?" What happened almost invariably is that the answer was "yes!" Maybe 75% or even more would say yes.
After going through his visit, and finding out what the total was, who said "yes", Zack would then re-visit those same workers and tell them, Guess what? I asked the same question of each of your co workers and you know what? 81% said Yes! The organizing would then proceed much more easily from that point out, each worker realizing he or she is not isolated, and thus safer in, expressing how they really feel.
|So what does this little story tell
us? The bottom line is the ideas outlined above for provisional online
donation and for tentative online voting for activist projects or
policy, are not such a strange concept, are not "too complicated to be
practical". They are very practical.
What the electronic tools can do however is to facilitate "visiting each house" on a much more massive scale than would be practical in person, as well as automating much of the keeping-tabs involved in polling and summarizing the overall sentiments, thus saving a good bit of "labor" for civic-minded citizens or activists whose focus may be labor, environment, or anything else.
The internet in its modern form is about a decade old. Corporations continue to exploit modern technology for last-minute supplying, for outsourcing, and much else for their bottom line. It's time -- indeed, past time -- for concerned citizens to more vigorously use the tools of the internet for their agendas, too, rather than leaving it to "The other side" by default.
Below is a short list of some features which could enhance online fund-raising. The thought experiment about digital watches is meant to suggest that we should remain open to new structures whose full list of features may seem "complicated," appreciating that relatively standard interfaces, protocols, and technological interfaces are likely to emerge which could make a suite of such features as "simple" and useful as today's digital watches, cell phones, etc.
Nor are the suggested features entirely novel. "Challenge grants" are well known, and are one type of "contingent donation"; other types are worth consideration. And who could forget the United Way's "thermometer" which displays publicly how much left there is before a goal is reached, thus motivating additional giving? See if you can recognize elements of these, as well as other elements, in the following scenario. Let's us put it in the form of a fictional narrative from some point in the future:
Dear diary: Today I surfed over to projects.indymedia.org to look at how things are coming along. I spent a half hour catching up with summaries, then another half hour participating in interactive, on-going discussions for fine-tuning plans for various media projects. I then went over to look at the financial state of each of the two projects I was most interested in.
The first one had reached 45% of it's start-up goal, and was estimated to be increasing by about 5% per week, so I knew it wouldn't be long before it would be ready to launch. I had liked the outline of this media project, and knew several of the initial organizers who would be the accountable (and temporary) 'administrators' of this project, so I decided to donate $25, contingent on the 100% mark being reached within the next 6 months, along with $5 per month for the on-going revenue stream to support the continuation of the project beyond its first year, contingent on there being at least 250 other donors.
We can imagine our web activist also going to her favorite internet radio station and making contingent donations along the lines above -- contingent on enough funding being received from others to guarantee at least 12 months of commercial-free programming, and a some kind of commitment from the station to remain commercial-free, say. A site implementing a few of the ideas suggested above was found at http://www.blender3d.com/ which in August of 2002 stated,
"Campaign Finale, tuesday aug 20: From now we will focus on the actual paid amount in our MoneyMeter. The pending amount will slowly degrade to a lower value, because our software won't count older submissions than 4 weeks anymore. That doesn't mean these pending members should not pay, in contrary! With 'paid' total at 90k, we will mail the 'intents', people who promised to pay if... (This was an interesting case of "switching" from a closed source for-profit to a nonprofit foundation maintaining OSFS, see http://www.blender.org/bf/deal.html)Their site also included a "Continuous updates on the latest funding" MoneyMeter in the form of a thermometer or colored bar graph (local copy of 8/27/02 image)
These folks didn't get their ideas from me. In fact, it is a very encouraging thing to find that others have implemented similar ideas to "yours," meaning, others have independently come up with many aspects of the same general collection of ideas, and signaling -- particularly when they have used them quite effectively, as in this case -- the power of those ideas.
Interactivity and democratic input can work in many ways. Suppose there is a planned project. It could be anything that costs money -- spending on infrastructure to increase bandwidth, making a difference in a particular region, any worthy goal conceived as a specific project.
(a) Here is the old model: you post on your site "please donate money towards a project"
(b) Here is the new model: people conditionally pledge money. That means that they pledge to give a certain amount, provided enough others pledge so that the (target) total is reached (or reached by some date). Your credit card number is already securely stored, so you are making an honest commitment. But you also have a guarantee that the funds will only go where you want them to go, and only if the project/proposal proves viable to get off the ground, and meets any other conditions you have placed upon your donation (funding) decision.
Consequently, you, and thousands like you, have a guarantee that you will avoid having your contribution take place, only to later find that a lack of enough total donations leads to the project getting canceled (or worse, having "management" deciding to use your contribution to take a different route in a decision not based on participatory input from the community). And there is instant online tabulation of how many have conditionally-pledged how much towards which project(s). This "conditional pledging" (conditional fund-raising) is part of a larger set of possibilities we might call "intelligent fund-raising"
A web panel would also allow any user of our hypothetical to find out as much as possible and agreed upon, about the finances of the site/organization, for example: where things stand on project and financially; how the budget is doing; perhaps even items like any salaries received, etc. And surfers can see how their donation is making a difference. (Some projects/organizers will be less open and democratic than others; the community can then take this into account in deciding which projects to support).
Other aspects could be further interactivity of the sort which have already been used successfully in various websites with online "communities" -- each person having a login/password and profile, with areas for discussions for fellow radio station listeners and the accountable current administrators of the station. Instead of an online radio station it could be an activist group or projects like the indymedia (the Independent Media Centers or IMCs), Znet, or the like.
If you think about it, right now what we do is incredibly primitive, haphazard, and information-poor: Each person is an isolated "atom" and has little information about, let alone control over, how their donation will ultimately be used, or towards which specific projects; hardly any assurance that the project will happen, and no knowledge of how many other people have pledged a total of how much, so far, towards the projects, and so forth.
There is absolutely nothing intrinsically "too complicated" about what is being proposed here. It is merely a matter of having the right tools -- technological features, organizational protocols, and convenient to use interfaces.
[Footnote: It's worth recalling that the spreading of democracy through history has always been resisted with claims that "it's too complicated for ordinary people" (e.g. voting itself). The criticism was always based on a grain of truth, whether it was applied to the general population, African Americans, or others. The point being that it was precisely the conditions under which people lived at the time that was responsible for making it "too difficult" for them to participate; once the conditions changed (e.g. more public education) people's ability and willingness to participate, and their interest, increased dramatically. Keep in mind it is only through the massive corporate assault on the public mind of recent decades that voting rates have lost ground to anti-participation/"anti-government" sentiments.]
Bonus Application: Avoiding "Meetup" Style Vicious
Meetup.com is a website in which you can type in your zip code, and then "join" various interest-based "meetup" groups in your area, such as Yoga, Knitting, GlobalWarming, Vegan, Hemp, etc.
Suppose you sign up for several meetup topic groups. Every few weeks you will receive an automatic email about where and when the next, (automatically scheduled), official meetup will be in your area for those interested in the topics you chose.
If the meetup topic group is popular, such as Environment, all goes well. You vote on a venue (location) and when the voting is done, you know where and when to show up for the in-person "meetup". On the other hand, suppose you are also signed up for a less popular meetup, say Vegan or Anarchism, and that you are not in a large city. You still get automatic emails every few weeks -- only to find online that instead of getting to vote on a location, you receive a "not enough members" message.
What next? Every few weeks you get an email from Meetup.com for the "Vegan" meetup group, along with your other groups. After a few more weeks of "meeting canceled" messages, you give up and drop your affiliation with "Veganism" -- who wants to keep getting "false alerts" and waste their time with emails about meetings, only to keep finding them canceled.
But then this becomes self-perpetuating. Now the number of members in your zip code affiliated with "Vegan" is smaller. Making it more likely that even if a couple more people sign up in the next week or two, the cut off size still won't be reached -- since you left. The same can happen to you you don't give up, when someone else does give up, dropping down the numbers of those affiliated. By the time someone else does sign up and take their place, several more weeks have passed, by which time perhaps you did finally give up, and drop out. Little did you know that just after you dropped out, 2 new local people expressed an interest -- and the meetup would have been "on" (if only you had not dropped!) since there would have then been enough people..!
If only you could indicate your "conditional" interst in Vegan wanting to receive emails about the next Vegan meetup, but only on condition that there are enough others who are likewise conditionally interested. That would save you, first, the hassle of "false alarms," and more importantly, would make it much more likely that this meetup group in your area would reach 'critical mass' and do so more quickly.
This example -- in itself -- is not of earth-shattering importance, particularly when Meetup could change its software to avoid this problem (though they may have financial incentives not to, wanting to keep members logging in frequently, into the Meetup.com website).
Either way, this example, coming as it does from yet another angle, related to neither fund-raising, voting, nor draft-resisting (see below), does begin to make a compelling case for the suggestion that applications for -- situations which could benefit from -- a system allowing "conditionality."
It becomes clear that there is quite a wide range of situations in which it is desirable to have software allowing for various preferences to be expressed, or actions to be taken, subject to a variety of possible "conditions" each member can set.
Then surely many more would be willing to "conditionally-donate" under these circumstances, confident that their donation would take place only if such significant impact would be made. And, with many more people willing to conditionally-donate, the probability that these would become actual donations -- and that the significant threshold level of total donations is reached -- correspondingly becomes much higher.
Given the overwhelmingly asymmetrical distribution of financial
power between us and corporations, is there any excuse for our
not vigorously investigating, and when possible, utilizing such
methods and tools as these, to ameliorate this situation and to begin
to level the playing field -- to significantly strengthen grassroots
Bonus Application: Draft Resistance and the
Withering of the State
On the surface, Draft Resistance is a completely separate topic from fund-raising (donations) or voting. What they have in common is the usefulness of conditionality in grassroots, non-centralized initiatives.
In the case of making donations, interactive, "intelligent" and specifically conditional donations are desirable because you don't want to waste your donation; you would like to be able to base your choice -- at least in part -- on what others are intent on doing. Likewise, in the case of conditional voting (e.g. on which project(s) or proposal(s) you will support), conditionality is desirable to maximize how informed you are, and how effective your vote(s) will be.
As is no doubt now clear, the commonality in question is that in the case of draft resistance, a person's decision as to whether or not to resist the draft depends on how isolated (and thus vulnerable) he [sic] will be. Although the stakes weren't as high, the same issue come in the mid 1980s as my best friend Harry -- the son of a certain well-known MIT linguist and activist -- and I, were graduating from high school. I asked him whether he planned to "resist" even registering for the draft. I still remember well his response, because the reasoning in it was thoughtful: he indicated that he had discussed the possibility with his parents. They suggested that, had there been a genuine national movement, it might (or "probably would") make sense to do so, but lacking such, there probably wouldn't be a point to it.
There are at least two reasons, then: in addition to wanting to minimize personal risk, one wishes to maximize the impact of one's potential decision. The same might be true of tax resisting, attending a protest, or engaging in civil disobedience during a protest. (I am aware of at least one article on the possibility of real-time information during protests, via cell-phones, about which actions are planned at which intersection. Explicitly it was just about coordination, but implicitly -- whether intended by the author of that piece or not -- there is also risk assessment, and assessment of potential impact: if only 5 others are planning to have a "blocking" sit-in, perhaps it's not worth it).
Let us return to our example about the potential use of software allowing for actions to be conditional, as it relates to draft resistance -- and see if we can put the thought experiment a few steps further ahead. Where will "confidence" come from, fro example?
How am I sure that the system, which tells me that N number of others have "conditionally agreed to resist the draft if the total by next week reaches 100,000" is dependable and accurate? After all I could get into legal trouble, if it isn't.
In the case of conditional donation, the key to confidence was, in part, that my credit card information had already been given (likewise others'), so that everyone is sure that if the "triggering conditions" are met, my donation, and others' will, in fact, go through.
There are many possibilities in the case of our draft resisting example, and there is no point in trying to settle on the "best" one in this article. However, we shall suggest one possibility next.
One possibility might be that I have given my consent in writing or online, to a formal letter being sent to the appropriate authorities, with my legally binding e-signature indicating I am resisting the draft. (It's standards in letter-writing campaigns to Congress to give authorization to a nonprofit to send a letter on your behalf; and, legally binding e-signatures are standard in quite a few other contexts. We may wish to combine these practices).
We can take our confidence and thus the robustness of this sytem farther. Thinking a further step ahead, we might imagine an independent "third party organization" like an insurer or lawyers' guild, looking at the online "conditional draft resisting" software and setup, and being willing to offer a kind o finsurance to each participant: insuring them against the very unlikely possibility that there is a malfunction and a letter is sent with their (pre-authorized) signature, but with a total number of such resistors being less than the limit they set (100,000 in our example). That is certainly a possibility. The insurance may include money, guaranteed hours of free legal defense, or both.
Thus anyone participating would have a degree of confidence that "if the software works as advertised, there is "safety (and, also crucially, effectiveness) in numbers" -- and that "there will be 100,000 or more of us." But not only that -- also the confidence in and assurance of this process, and insurance against malfunctions or other unlikely risks related to participating.
Just as having added "conditionality" allowed us -- due to considerations of both safety and effectiveness -- to increase the number of people willing to participate in such an action -- draft resistance in this example -- likewise, "assurance" procedures such as these would increase even further, to an even higher figure, the number of people who are ready, willing, and able to take part in such a mass-based, and massive, act of civil disobedience. Draft resistance being one very applicable example.
Think of the potential!
It is only by dividing us (thus increasing individual risk and putting effectiveness into question) that both totalitarian governments and governments which are "democratic" in form, are able to -- sharply -- dampen the level of participation in mass-scale civil disobedience actions.
Needless to say, we will want to practice this responsibly. However, given the stakes -- with corporate-government Business As Usual taking us towards Perpetual War, towards nuclear terrorism becoming "inevitable", and towards climate-change induced worldwide catastrophes of massive scale and dangerously, possibly suicidally unpredictable character -- we need to use all the tools we can to change the system. To use all the techniques we have, to change the playing field and the power relations between We The People, on the one hand, and the Corporate-Governmental Axis on the other.
Thinking still further ahead...
The government may try to make it a criminal offense to even conditionally give permission to the grassroots organization to send out such a letter on your behalf, but that runs into several problems. First, how will the government find out you did it, without succeeding in breaking the encryption of the grassroots campaign's computers? Second, it takes longer to pass laws in Congress, than for a clever variation in the method or software to be invented. If giving conditional permission to do X is banned, start a project in which people give conditional permission for Y, where Y is close to, or can be easily turned into, X.
And what if the government goes after grassroots organizations suspected of running the "conditional draft resistance"? Let's just say that there may be a lesson to be learned from the history of file sharing, where Napster was much easier to deal with, having a central server, than the Gnutella type de-centralized software, where no central body is in control, but large numbers of users just choose to get together and run that software. Similar ideas could -- and should -- be investigated to protect citizen's rights and freedoms from unjust control by the State.
This concludes the present thought experiment, but if we look into the somewhat blurred path towards the future which these avenues suggest, we can envision a gradual "withering of the State" (and simultaneously of corporate power), over time, as ever more potent software with ever more generalizable features and applications evolves, allowing for de-centralized many-to-many decisions which the Corporate-State axis simply cannot stifle.
Just imagine if 5% or 10% or more of the population agrees in unison that they will not go to work for a full week if a war is started. Just imagine if this information is available and cannot be hidden by the corporate press. Just imagine if word spreads and 10% therefore turns into 15%. There is an old saying that if everyone in China jumped at the same time, there would be an earthquake. And a political observation that if everyone -- that's the crucial word -- simultaneously told a dictator, "starting this minute, we are not obeying you", the dictatorship would be over. It's the risk of being alone (or among a small group) that keeps dictatorships in power, and likewise, which allows partially democratic states like the "western democracies" of today to keep tight control over the actions -- and open avenues of thought -- of its population. Tools exist today, and more potent ones can be developed, to challenge and overcome this control. Let us develop and use these liberating tools.
The above proposals can promote a substantial increase in democratic participation and input -- worthy goals in and of themselves -- while also increasing motivation and commitment by participating communities of people (formerly, "audiences") in a way which can dramatically increase the financial viability of grassroots projects and other activist initiatives.
What about the logistics of the donation process itself. It is here that part of the familiar "It's fast! It's Easy" paradigm are worth emulating. First, we should make it easy to donate. Make it possible have an amount automatically taken off our credit card, a certain fixed amount every month, week, or quarter for example. The "sustainers" program of Znet has used this with the result that many people who wouldn't write a check for $120 or more for just one project of one group, are signed up and having $10 or more deducted monthly from their account.
It should be possible for a monthly amount to be taken off one's credit card which is as little as a dollar (responses to objections about the viability of $1 charges on credit cards are addressed below). The fact is that human psychology matters. More will be willing to have $1 auto-deducted from their credit card per month, than to give $12 now for an interesting project that is one of ten or more interesting projects. Over time the donations to the project which people support most can increase to $2 or $3 or $5 per month. Those trying to raise funds will collect much more this way than by seeking people who will jump straight to contributing higher amounts. A web-panel would allow people to instantly access and change what the amount per month of their auto-withdrawn donation is, what the total they have given so far is, and so forth, in addition to the "percent of start-up funds raised" and other data suggested above.
Visa currently charges higher fees for transactions under $10. There are several possible responses to criticisms of this proposal based on that fact. One response is simply to grin and bear it. Getting a large increase in the number of funders is likely to be a benefit which dwarfs the negative of the higher translation fees. A second possible solution is simply to have the computer "pool" transactions. Someone donating $2 per month could in reality be charged $10 every 5 months, for example, with the computer keeping track of everything. [Note, e.g. paystone.com allows payments as small at $0.25. However to accept a $5.01 payment a merchant would have to pay $0.30 plus 3%, or 9% to paystone, and higher rates for smaller amounts. Various alternatives to PayPal are listed at http://www.nopaypal.com/options.shtml which also lists serious dangers for its users ]
A third possibility is a more complex and ambitious type of pooling, which may however offer exciting possibilities. Imagine 100 or 1000 organizations implementing this model. They each pay a fee to a non-profit "clearinghouse" which bundles contributions. The most obvious way to bundle contributions is with respect to the individual. The clearing house would notice that Janet has $2 per month each to two indymedia projects, $5 per month to Znet, and $5 per month to the exciting new indymedia collaborative starting 24/7 internet TV. A monthly charge of $14 would appear on Janet's Visa bill, charged to this clearinghouse. The clearing house would collect the $14 from Visa (as if Janet paid a single $14 amount to the clearinghouse, using her Visa card) and would then electronically credit (minus very low overhead) each of the institutions or projects for which the donations were earmarked.
Of course, it's also possible that the clearinghouse would have enough transactions to have enough negotiating power with Visa to get lower transaction fees even for smaller transactions. Another possibility is that Visa and Mastercard will face competition from various virtual money service providers; other possible routes exist for lower "minimum transaction" levels.
There are other, more radical and correspondingly more interesting possibilities. Electronic Activism Revisited: The Transition Away from Capitalism will suggest a decentralized system which is very roughly a financial analog of Gnuttela. In short, what is needed is a universal and easy to use tool and/or protocol which does for money, what Napster and to a greater extent Gnuttela have done for files. Just as Gnutella creates another network beyond the web, this concept could be created to include money.
You should be able to log into the network and find out what proposed project there are, how many other people have supported which project, what the total funding is for any given project or organization, etc. For example perhaps indymedia needs a weekly budget of $X to produce a weekly news show, or $Y to produce it twice per week, or $Z for a daily version.
We could all jointly track the conditional-donations funding, and interest, enthusiasm, and commitment would build as we saw the "thermometer rise" and approach a sustainable $X/week. Borrowing an idea from organizations like Working Assets , one can envision a web site allowing one to enter a $120 donation followed by percentages you wish allocated to projects A, B, and C.
Note: although the set of all possible projects out there is huge, this need not make the task of finding projects you wish to support along with like-minded people, a daunting one. Systems and software already exist (and other variant, more suitable to the purposes suggested here, could be developed), for example, the slashdot model. There, software lets each person rate any given article. So while the total number of articles is too huge for anyone to sift through, in addition to searching by keywords, you can find the most top-rated articles. This can be refined to have the articles sorted in any of various ways; either the most highly rated articles among the entire population of participants, or among subpopulations defined by similar interests and other affinity criteria.
A system along these lines would certainly be helpful for the critically-needed funding of "Projects" including the creation of quality content for non-corporate, democratic mass media. As noted in The Revolution Will be Webcast, existing and emerging technologies mean the potential for noncorporate media become "noncorporate mass-media" with 7-digit audiences is there. (Strategic Vision and call to action: The Revolution Will be Webcast ; follow-up with specific tactics and 10-point action plan: CounterSpinner)
As noted there, the weakest links in the "chain" which is needed to
make this a reality are funding for the creation, advertising (letting
the public know our media and program exist), and sharing and
distributing programming content. Absolutely critical to this first
ever historic enterprise -- the democratization of the mass media
landscape -- will be cooperation, critically including financial
cooperation, among autonomous yet interdependent and mutually
supportive organizations in a meta-network of progressive, radical,
grassroots groups. Thus, we financial Liliputians can together "tie
down" (and replace) the corporate Gullivers, a feat we could not do
7. Future Directions
These ideas have even farther reaching potentials and consequences, however. We would like to propose something along the lines of a financial dimension added to a Gnutella type network. Such a facility would arguably be not only very useful for supporting many activist groups and projects, , but absolutely necessary for the larger long-term goal of attaining working and functioning models of economic democracy to replace capitalism.
It is a sine qua non in the sense that our ability to transition from Corporate capitalism (it won't happen overnight, it will be "revolution by evolution") into a democratic alternative critically depends on society having mechanisms, tools and technological protocols allowing for many-to-many information sharing (the internet provides the fundamental basis for this already) in a manner that additionally, seamlessly allows financial (and other economic) decisions which arise from the consensus goals arrived at, to be carried out (enacted) both democratically and collectively.
Unless and until we have this capacity, the immediate loss will be that our projects will suffer from gross under-funding and the long-term loss will be the shackling of the difficult but very realistically achievable process of transforming the global economic system.
Let's consider an aside which may shed light on the importance of this enterprise.
As Chomsky noted when I had an hour-long conversation with him in his home in 1994, in practice the term "resources" means "concentrated resources". General motors has a lot of resources. The workers of GM also have (in total) quite lot of resources. But the former is concentrated, the latter is not. Hence, GM's workers "have an organizing problem"; GM itself does not have "an organizing problem"; when we talk about centers of power having resources, he noted, we're really talking about their having concentrated resources (and thus power).
Ralph Nader often speaks of the "Trillions of dollars" in workers' pensions, which would give workers considerable economic power, if only they were able to collectively and democratically decide how to invest that money. The reality today is that workers have no such power, and the money they own is not money they control; others, in the corporate world -- e.g. investment banks who may fund the mega-mergers which create massive layoffs of the very workers whose pension funds helped fund the mergers, for example -- control those trillions of dollars in pension funds.
Therefore if we would like to promote the viability of any kind of democratic economic model, then without knowing the exact details of such a model, we can already conclude that various specific technologies, protocols, clients, etc, need to be developed which allow and facilitate intelligent and democratic communitarian, cooperative consensus building and decision-making, critically including the ability to carry out those decisions which are financial in nature through, i.e., to carry out financial transactions.
With the input of others, future versions of this document will flesh out further details of general "financial protocol" tools needed. While encouraging such input from readers (email m-a-i-l-m-a-i-l[at-sign]EconomicDemocracy.org without the hyphens), additional details are already suggested by shifting attention from the the broad long-term goal to more specific arenas; we must keep our eyes on the prize after all -- in other words, "what would be most useful in this or that context" of a path towards a transformed economy.
Let us close with some of the "big questions" that we need to grapple with as a community. What kinds of tools (software/protocols, etc) would be helpful for, and what capabilities are needed for, any of the following: