[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]
The Women’s March and the Judean People’s Front: After Occupy, after trumpism, a new networked politics
By Cory Doctorow
Jan 22 2017
Doubtless you’ve laughed at the ideological war between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. I laughed along with you: having grown up in politics, I know firsthand about the enmities that fester between groups that should be allies — groups whose differences can only be parsed after months of study, but who are seemingly more at odds with one another than their obvious political opponents on the “other side” of the debate.
The traditional explanation for this is that the personality traits that lead people to politics — their passion and outrage — makes it hard for them to cooperate with one another. If you care enough about politics to be an activist, you’re probably kind of hard to get along with.
This explanation is incomplete, and the rise and rise of networked political movements, from the “Smart Mobs” of the dawn of the net-age to yesterday’s Women’s March (not to mention the Pepe-weaponizing goons of the alt right; the Sanders revolution; and the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon) points to another explanation, with another set of weaknesses and strengths.
Let’s start with what groups do. In 1937, Ronald Coase won the economics Nobel for The Nature of the Firm, which argues that individuals form groups to reduce “transaction costs” (the amount of work/money you have to spend to make sure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and not getting in each others’ way). Coase says that the way that groups solve their coordination problems is every bit as important why they’re solving those problems: the organizational models adopted by churches, criminal gangs, corporations, revolutionaries and corner shops are as significant as the purposes behind those models.
Transaction costs are a huge drag on all human activity, and they’re especially high for dissident political movements. A mainstream political movement gets access to all kinds of free coordination tools, from being legally permitted to open a storefront community center to having legislators in office with staffers, to getting favorable coverage in mass media, sending new supporters their way, which gives them more resources to devote to community centers and staffers and PR.
Political oppositions have all kinds of costs that mainstream politics don’t have to contend with: at the extreme end, dissidents have to hide their identities from one another lest one person be arrested and the rest of them “rolled up” by the police; what’s more, new followers have to be willing to incur the potential risks of blacklisting, arrest, torture and execution. Even for less-imperiled oppositions, there’s the risk of social censure for taking public stands outside the mainstream, reflexive dismissal or mockery in mass media, and the frustration of having to “waste” your time on routine tasks that the mainstream gets for free, like wheat-paste postering for a demonstration
It’s a lot easier to dabble in mainstream politics than it is to get involved in radical politics. It’s easy to find a Democratic or Republican fundraiser or local committee meeting, easy to contribute some labor or cash to the cause, then disengage for a while. These mainstream events also involve a wide spectrum of views — there are Reagan Republicans and Trump Republicans; Clinton Democrats and Sanders Democrats. While the sides don’t get along all the time, they’re less prone to splintering into mutually loathing People’s Fronts of Judea and Judean People’s Fronts.
In terms of coordination costs, radical politics are a lot more expensive to get involved with. It’s harder to discover the meetings, and just understanding the group’s program probably requires quite a lot of mental work because radical politics don’t enjoy the advantage of having a school system and press that continuously disseminate their worldview. There’s a reason that the fundamental unit of Marxist politics is the “study group.” You have to start with a relatively high level of commitment.
In other words, in mainstream politics, supporters can casually date their political lives; in radical politics, you pretty much start off with a marriage proposal.
This, I think, explains the People’s Front of Judea conundrum of radical politics.When you’re just dating, it doesn’t matter if you don’t find yourself out for an evening with someone you couldn’t spend the rest of your life with. It may be enough that they are a good dancer or a fun conversationalist. But if you skip straight to marriage, then any irreconcilable difference is a deal-breaker. The reason two Marxists can’t abide each other despite having differences so esoteric that they can only be appreciated after a month’s careful reading is that they know that these differences can’t be reconciled, and that, in a world of scarce followers who have to overcome significant barriers to join them, anyone who signs up for one flavor is virtually certain to never back the other. When the stakes are higher, the differences matter more.