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Subject: Rethinking Decentralized Activism

Note to readers: uPangea (Universal Profile And Networking: GEography and Affinity) was not proposed just to address the issues raised here -- it was proposed as a more general tool -- yet an increasing list has been growing of examples or areas where it is applicable -- this essay explores an important activism arena where uPangea can help resolve present obstacles to faster progress. -HB

Important Disclaimer: To properly understand what is being said below, it is critical to avoid several confusions. What follows is *not* a critique of any of the projects/proposals which are listed below; nor am I making assumptions or claims about the content of each of these being "similar". Nevertheless an analysis of the history of isolated proposals below suggests some lessons, and uPangea is at least one possible tool which could help.


Each of the following projects/proposals has significant individual merit -- and yet, side by side, we ask, "What's wrong with this picture?"

A. The International Network for Inclusive Democracy describes itself ((http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/ID_network.htm) and its goals as being

"an international confederation of local autonomous groups or individual members. Participation in the network does not imply any organization commitment, since there is no 'centre' in accordance with the aims of the ID. However, participation does imply acceptance of Our Aims, as published in this website.

Local cells decide whether they would be organised as study groups and/or as groups for local political intervention... A basic function of the network would be the exchange of information between the local cells about their activity and their related experiences and problems..At the moment, ID cells are functioning in Argentina, Germany, Greece, Italy, Nepal, UK, Uruguay and USA.

Reading this excerpt brought to mind not only of the World Social Forum model of having state, regional, and city Social Forums, but of a project proposal described in Z magazine back in the 1990s -- the OLS.

B. What's the OLS, you ask? Today Google finds a total of only about two dozen pages on the entire internet, having the phrase "Organization for a Liberated Society", some of which still have a link to the "Organization for a Liberated Society website" pointing to "http://www.theols.org/" This link, today takes the user to one of those "internet index" sites pointing surfers to various links in categories like "Travel", "Finance" "Entertainment, "Shopping" etc.

The original proposal was titled "Organization to Liberate Society?" (see http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/olsarticle.htm ) and starts with the words,

"How big is the choir? How many more people have left values and hopes though they are not able to act on them? How many people with just a little explanation and prodding would be in this camp and on the road to activism? These are fair questions, it seems to me, to which no one has compelling answers. A group of folks recently put on the internet a web site that wants to find out.."

The OLS proposal was well-written, with an elegantly simple set of 5 organizing principles (see below) -- what went wrong? Why is it not alive and thriving today?

C. More recently, Michael Albert wrote a piece, "Where to Now? A Peace and Justice Organization Proposal" (http://www.zmag.org/ZMagSite/Aug2003/albert0803.html) which although not identical to the OLS or the World Social Forum, nevertheless attempts to organize (or, foster the organizing of) many local organizations which are networked in a decentralized fashion into larger groupings. Noting that

"Activists worldwide don't need a new mechanism for broad and congenial discussions because the World Social Forum (www.wsfindia.org/) and its local forums provide that. Nor do activists need a loose network for coordinating actions because the People's Global Action (www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/en/) and numerous other decentralized networks exist for that purpose the proposals suggests,"a new democratic, participatory, multi-issue international membership organization that could spark solidarity, share lessons and resources, and facilitate coordinated worldwide activity and program"

...while giving participants "responsibility and accountability and control of [their] collective pursuits in proportion as [they] are each involved and affected by them" with a council structure (say 20 members per council), one representative per council, so 100,000 people would have 5,000 representatives in a "first council", 250 in a second tier council, and 12 in a third council; a council reaching 40 members would split into two. Thus grouping of much smaller size (20) than a city's Social Forum is envisioned, along with structural suggestions -- while being open to other alternatives: "On the other hand, if this type of council organization proved unsatisfactory, presumably organization members would come up with other ways to foster true participation and democracy."

* * *

Please notice -- we have not arrived at the "what's wrong with this picture?" aspect merely by virtue of the fact that several of the key strands running through these proposals are quite similar. On the contrary, it is a hopeful sign that relatively independent groups and writers have gravitated towards certain principles about which a consensus has built that they offer the best framework for moving forward constructively.

Before suggesting what is problematic, let us peek at:

Example D. (January 1, 2004): "Draft Proposal for a Continental Anti-Authoritarian Anti-Capitalist Network" (CAAACN) at http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=04/01/01/0303286 which stated that

"this network will serve as 'an instrument for co-ordination, not an organization'..It's also important that the internal work of maintaining and forming the network not take time or work from the external work of fighting capitalism. CAAACN significantly models itself after People's Global Action (PGA) (see http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/cocha/principles.htm )

While OLS in B. above had 5 principles, the CAAACN proposal D. includes more specific aims ("building relationships with local communities and groups", "sharing skills, communication, and technology" organizing protests and intervening in struggles (e.g. strikes), being a source for legal support and fund-raising, and public education/outreach).

Not unlike the tasks for the organization C., which Albert suggests include " movements around the world working to aid and learn from one another to advance their agendas and propel an international movement of movements", and echoing the ID proposal A. for "cells" which among other things allow for "the exchange of information between the local cells about their activity and their related experiences and problems".

Likewise, the question of "How big is the choir?" posed in B. is not unlike D.'s "Until now, anarchists and anti-authoritarian anti-capitalists in North America have lived as alienated fragments, relying upon mass mobilizations to make our greater existence evident to ourselves...

DISCLAIMER: We do not claim these projects/proposals are identical or even "very close" in the specifics of their goals. In fact, even the fact that they are all based on a left/progressive framework does not affect the underlying issues being raised here about "what's wrong with this picture" -- all three of the examples might as well have been by right-wing groups, and certain underlying issues and questions about effective activism would remain.

What is problematic is also not the diversity of proposals or even that they could move forward in parallel -- all that is fine.

Issues which do arise include: how do we avoid centralization of power or decision-making, yet, at the same time, have more effective proposals that build wider and wider support and participation, in a "from the ground up" manner? How can similar proposals effectively and (in a sense compatible with our values) efficiently find one another; find common ground; avoid unnecessarily duplicated efforts or "re-inventing the wheel"; merge parts that are compatible; and remain autonomous or even separate where that makes sense -- all while avoiding getting bogged down in counter-productive debates or parallel efforts that take up years, and while also avoiding hierarchical power structures as well?

Also, how can "cells" from project A. find not just each other, but find "cells" from project D. or C.? And if they do find one another, what then? Dissolve? Merge? What if they don't want to give up their prior identity, or wish to keep it as a "backup"? Can there be an intelligent method to link up globally, while keeping decision making de-centralized, democratic, and mostly local?

Notice also that even while each project, A. through D. above, was a proposal for a de-centralized project, nevertheless the process of *making the initial proposal* was "centralized" meaning, coming from one or a small number of people, and sent to "everyone else". Can we invent a way for proposals to be disseminated through a process which itself is decentralized, and yet keep things more focused and more likely to converge towards mutually-agreeable coalitions, than merely "everyone posts their ideas to the whole internet"? Below we suggest one way this might be doable.

One last comment before making a few initial steps towards suggesting partial solutions: the problem should now be clear. Even if you would use a weaker term than "problem", at the very least the "challenge" is clear -- which areas and processes we would like to improve, and in which ways.

Therefore, once you acknowledge this problem -- or at least, the "challenge" -- which we face it is not relevant whether you believe the (partial) solution proposed below is, or is not, wonderful. Once you admit darkness exists in a given room, that darkness does not go away by criticizing one proposed lamp for that room -- we may suggest other lamps if you wish, but we can no longer deny the darkness issue applies to the given "room" (set of issues) just described.

That said, we do suggest that uPangea does, in fact, offer a very real possibility for "illuminating" the room in question; for alleviating at least some of the issues outlined above. To get an idea of what uPangea is about, please read http://EconomicDemocracy.org/upangea.html

The prospects for using uPangea to help address these issues are particularly strong due to the fact that uPangea is still being defined, so new ideas about what is should be able to do, can be added relatively easily at this early stage.

Nevertheless, enough is fleshed out about uPangea's basic essence that it's not too difficult to outline what it is and what it could do to help decentralized activism. The uPangea system would include Universal Personal Profiles (UPPs) for each person, but in a very general manner. On one level, it would make all "matchmaker" and "find a friend" services online obsolete since a de-centralized and universal database with powerful searching criteria would be created. On other levels, geographical data would allow each person (or possibly, organization) to specify in their UPP to share only certain information with certain other nodes in the uPangea network, depending on whether these other nodes (people or organizations) are situated nearby, whether they share certain goals/values, etc. It would allow labor organizers, tenant organizers, peace activists, etc, to find each other, in their locales, while keeping true identities anonymous as desirable, and sharing more, including full identity or full UPP, if and when needed. It would let you use uPangea from your internet-connected Electric Vehicle (EV) to find people in the EV Network -- those who will let you plug in 'at cost' to recharge -- who live close by to your driving route from Boston to Chicago, for example. See the uPangea link for fuller details.

Under the meetup.com model, you may create an "Anarchism" meetup only to later find out that an "Anarchy" or "ID" or "Parecon" meetups exist with identical, or similar views -- or worse, you might not find out for over a year, while your small group does not reach the critical mass for success. We stress: we are not suggesting to "force" different-but-similar groups to merge; merely that we make it easier for them to merge or even temporarily merge, or temporarily cooperate, in those contexts where that makes sense. Currently even when it makes sense, many obstacles prevent it, as the previous examples, and now this meetup.com example, illustrate.

One problem is there aren't obvious "atoms" for "proposals". After all, one might have 100 or 200 keywords including "anarchism" and "ID" and "Parecon" and the problem of merging is to a significant extent solved: the people in your "ID" group can choose to search for others who have " 'ID' or 'Anarchism'" or some wider search -- thus finding one another.

We could probably with some success, come up with a list of principles, like "de-centralized power" or "against 'one dollar equals one vote'" or "voting power in proportion to how much the decision affects you" etc -- and such a list might well be very useful in a uPangea type network; nevertheless, one simply cannot atomize proposals. It would be wonderful it we could have 100 or 400 snippets, and have each person choose the subset they like, and then use Boolean searches (with "ANDs" and "ORs" and "NOTs") to find everyone else who more or less agrees with them -- but that would only arrive at a very skeletal first draft of a proposal, at best.

What are some human protocols, incorporated into the way uPangea operates, which might help?

Suppose each of the proposals A. through D. above was encoded into uPangea (Name="...." ; Type="Proposal" ; SubType="Social Change" ; Summary="..." ; FullText="URL" ; UniqueID=4275147) or the like.

Each person could say "yes" or "no" to each proposal. Further, the data types for uPangea are general enough that various shades-of-grey between "yes" and "no" might be allowed for certain such proposals.

Then, suppose I'm aware of three of the above four proposals. Then I can search for everyone --or everyone within 30 miles of my zip code, in the US for example-- who has checked "yes" to *any* of these. The beauty of course if that I can find them even if they are not aware of all three of these -- they may only be aware of one, for example.

Over time, the number who have "voted" indicating they are in favor of a given proposal can grow. And, suppose five years from now, sadly, none of these proposals got anywhere? Then all is not lost! Suppose someone proposes proposal Q, five years from now, which is similar to, and incorporates the best features of, each of these. Then a call could be made to everyone who had said "yes" to any of these proposals, and within a --very-- short period of time, the "Total Yes votes" for proposal Q. would reach, at least, the total number in support of the most-favored of the previous four projects.

One danger to avoid is that we don't want to be constantly inundated with 100 proposals each week saying: "I know you love X, so check out Y and please vote Yes (i.e. add it to your list of proposals you're in favor of)"

However it is not difficult to propose some possible ways to alleviate such problems. For example, we can borrow some ideas from the way we vote -- where to get on the ballot (or to get free TV time in some countries) a candidate must first demonstrate a certain threshold level of support.

Suppose, for example, that each of us can set in their UPP what level of prior support -- from 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 people for example -- we require before we are ready and willing to be notified in a mass appeal, about such a proposal (one can still individually contact friends in one's network to individually disseminate one's proposal)?

The generalizability of uPangea's structures will be complex enough to store presences like "only if 10,000 or more concerning [something I don't care very much about] but if 200 or more and [locally related] or 100 or more and [cause I care about very much] then notify me of such a proposal so I can read and evaluate it"

The above sufficiently outlines a workable way forward. We might add only that, to jump start the process, one might use the best known example (along these lines) namely the World Social Forum (WSF). People indicating support for and/or interst in following developments about, the WSF, could then be notified about projects like A. thorough D. above, while the details of the "show a threshold level of support" system are ironed out. Using uPangea's UPPs, large number of people could be signed up -- and would sign themselves up -- with that self-identifying keyword in their "politics, personal" UPP element: very quickly then, a very large number of people, not much less than the number who support the WSF, could indicate support for any one of the projects A. through D. above, or any combination thereof -- possibly savings months or years of organizing to reach that level of global support -- surely in the millions worldwide -- and that would be the new floor. Over time each project could then try to reach higher levels of UPP "membership" (indications of support).

Postscript: The old OLS page (proposal B. above) had said "Imagine an organization with a million members that grows at an accelerating rate. It has a program that stems from the needs and insights of its membership and it pursues its goals with vigor" -- this first million could be attained almost overnight by once uPangea is a common internet protocol/network, and once the (surely millions) of WSF supporters find out about OLS. That's a lot of saved time for the " OLS idea..to recruit, recruit, recruit until there are a million members, and only then to settle on national program." Likewise uPangea already has all that is needed -- and much more -- for the OLS proposal's answer to "Q: If I join an organization I want to have co-members who I can talk with and get support from. How does that happen with OLS?" stating that "OLS members put brief bios and contact information into the membership database and onto this public site" since uPangea in a much more general setting would already have had such "bios" -- and much more -- firmly in place to begin with.

Again, please see http://EconomicDemocracy.org/upangea.html for more information. The author, Harel B, can be contacted at h [at sign] harelbarzilai [period] org and would be happy to hear your input, as well as to share a piece about fund-raising and "conditional-voting" over the internet which has some related themes.

See also http://www.GroundAction.com for a unique internet board system: not for discussing news or general analysis or debating general theory, rather, this site is for specific thought out project proposals (and strategy ideas) to be posted and discussed, each project/strategy in its own forum