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[liberationtech] Fwd: Changing (and contested) citizen (cyber)activism -- OpenDemocracy article by Lisa Veneklasen, Nov.10 / 2011

davidicus bigbluearth at
Sat Nov 12 00:04:31 PST 2011

Interesting article, possibly of interest to some on this list.

Citizen action and the perverse confluence of opposing agendas

Lisa Veneklasen, 10 November 2011

When opposing political interests are using the same terms and tactics
in diametrically opposed agendas, Lisa Veneklasen asks how we can
transform the power of citizen action into sustained change for
justice and equality

About the author
Lisa VeneKlasen is the co-founder and executive director of Just
Associates (JASS), an international feminist organization driven by
regional networks in Mesoamerica, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia

What with claims of “Facebook revolutions” in the Arab Spring and
“leaderless movements” in Occupy-Wall-Street protests across the
world, the media is abuzz with commentary on the changing nature of
citizen action. But – aside from new gadgets and unexpected locations
– are people really organizing against injustice in ways that differ
fundamentally from those of recent decades? Or, when you look closely
and compare today’s uprisings and mobilizations for equality and
freedom to their predecessors, do you find more continuity than
difference? And then, setting aside old vs. new, can we say that
present-day strategies are in fact advancing the cause of justice?

Occupy Wall Street had not been born when a diverse international
collection of scholars and activists met over two days in The Hague in
September 2011 to consider how citizen action is changing.
Nonetheless, the Arab Spring, worldwide digital activism, Slut Walks,
Indignados, and multiplying mobilizations against austerity packages
around the world seemed to signal new energy and, at the very least, a
fresh round of youth activism and political ingenuity.

Not surprisingly, perceptions of what’s new, what’s old and what’s
better are shaped largely by age and place. Young Egyptian activists –
still optimistic about the future despite the military’s hold on state
power and the reversals of women’s rights and roles – see their
country and their fellow citizens in a fresh new light. Leila, a young
Spanish-Syrian activist and social media journalist with Al Jazeera
exclaimed that the Arab uprisings and Spanish Indignados  felt like
“the day the people woke up!”

It’s the younger generation of netizens who fully own the
possibilities of technology. From the instantaneous blast of images of
injustices to the text messaging to protect activists from riot police
and military, virtual citizen action has exponential reach, as many
digital activists in their twenties described to the gathering in The
Hague. A Brazilian hack-tivist working with many social justice
groups, Pedro declared that the new technology has made old-fashioned
hierarchical and formalized communication and organization irrelevant.
With new technologies, anyone can be a journalist and an activist.
“NGOs are dead. Journalism is dead…. Being a citizen with no power is
boring, but technology makes it possible for anyone to be in the
middle of the action.” At the same time, he flatly dismissed the
notion that the technology drives the revolution. “There’s no Facebook
revolution. There’s just Facebook and then there’s people organizing.”
Does the Internet limit the depth and staying power of citizen action,
as many people fear, reducing it to an isolated click of a mouse by
disconnected individuals? Sure, Pedro admitted, there are a handful of
lazy pseudo-activists, “slactivists” or “clicktivists.” It’s about how
you use the technology. “It’s the interaction and connection between
the street action and the digital action that matters.”

Older activists and scholars at the meeting – with experience ranging
from revolutions of the 1960s and 70s to the anti-globalisation and
feminist movements – viewed these new developments with a mix of
excited interest and scepticism. Their questions boiled down to the
issues of vision, ideology and strategy: “What are we building?”
Puzzled by some of the dynamics in the Arab Spring, one long-time
Dutch activist, Kees Stad, asked about Libya, “How is it that NATO is
bombing a country and we call this a revolution? What ever happened to
the idea of imperialism?”

People’s mobilizations against injustice are always shaped by context
and history – an apparently obvious but easily overlooked basic truth.
As the world both changes and stays the same, so too does citizen
action. To decipher the confusing dynamics shaping citizen action
today, Evelina Dagnino, a Brazilian political scientist, introduced a
conceptual gem: perverse confluence. Drawing on the last three decades
of Brazil’s engagement with the notion of citizenship, she pointed out
that opposing political interests – social movements, the state, and
the drivers of neoliberalism – all use and promote the notion of
active citizens as if united harmoniously in a shared vision of
democracy and inclusion. But, in reality, social movements claim and
redefine citizenship to recognize and build inclusion across race,
class, gender, sexuality and other barriers; the state uses the
legalities of citizenship to control who counts, has access, and
decides; and neoliberalism equates citizens with consumers and
embraces the idea of active citizen engagement as a way to expand
markets. Three diametrically opposed agendas snuggled into the same
political terminology – an example of perverse confluence, and of the
messy contradictions of the moment.

This is a world in which Facebook, the activist’s new weapon of
choice, is also a powerful instrument for the promotion of consumer
capitalism. This is a world in which some of the strongest movements
using left-inspired tactics are in fact right wing (behold the US Tea
Party); a world in which so-called progressive and left governments –
especially in the Americas – turn out to be the most effective at
dismantling reproductive rights and marginalizing feminist agendas.
>From the Sandinista government’s total ban on abortion and Brazil’s
President Dilma Rousseff’s back pedalling on reproductive rights, to
President Obama’s last-minute trade away of funding for abortions in
Washington DC in the high stakes budget battles of 2011, the former
unity between left and feminist agendas, tenuous at best, has given
way to the a perverse confluence. As one person in the gathering put
it, “What do we do about citizen action mobilizing against freedom?”

With these odd paradoxes of the moment naturally comes the crisis of
discourse. The meaning of vital words in an activist’s lexicon – from
“empower” to “movement” – fail to provide a single potent political
meaning. Take “citizen action” or “citizen participation” for example.
Surely mobilizing citizen participation in Occupy Wall Street is
fundamentally different from the citizen participation promoted by the
World Bank – but how is it we’re all one happy family using the same
words? Then, we have the word “citizen” itself. Contested for sure.
It’s not universally embraced as synonymous with claiming justice,
particularly by the immigrants who are marginalized and denied their
rights on the basis of citizenship. Can the Tea Party and Occupy Wall
Street both call themselves a movement where one is about
consolidating current inequalities and the other is about overthrowing

Words are important for political activists for many reasons, most of
all to get on the same page and to communicate something compelling.
But in the fast-paced world of global information capitalism,
cooptation of citizen justice struggles by powerful actors is a
certainty. With the emerging battle over who owns the trademark for
“We are the 99%”, how long before Gap has an Occupy fashion trend, and
Walmart has its own Arab Spring?

Speaking of perverse confluences and aspects of citizen action that do
not change, let’s go back to the woman question. How is it that the
whole world is seemingly mobilizing against inequality and injustice
at the same time that the global consensus about women’s equality is
cracking and a steady rollback of women’s rights is underway? Behold
the Arab Spring: despite their role as organizers and activists on the
frontlines, women are now struggling for basic legal rights let alone
a voice in the transition. Beyond the excitement of digital activism,
one can’t fail to notice the scarcity of women and dominance of dudes
among the techies, or the alarming statistics that demonstrate how
women are the losers in the digital divide. What are the implications
of this gender breakdown for the future of citizen mobilization? It’s
not as if women and feminists aren’t organizing and mobilizing –
they’re lending their support to all justice issues while fighting
women’s rights issues all by themselves, and often against
extraordinary levels of normalized and sexual violence.

Being left for last on the lists of the revolutionary agendas,
invisible on the inequality headlines, and still unprotected: this is
definitely not a new scenario for women. But in the wake of two
decades of advances on women’s rights internationally, it reminds us
of how power operates and of the certainty of backlash. That’s an old
lesson that women’s movements can offer new mobilizations: it takes
deep levels of organization, shared visions, strong alliances and
staying power to survive inevitable backlash. The other old lesson is
that there is no revolution without the other 51%. The good news is
that some of the women Occupying are optimistic about the movement’s
desire and potential for dealing with what one occupier called the
“manarchist” problem by openly confronting misogyny, racism, and
gender oppression.

Despite the media fascination with it, the slow process of
consciousness-raising and dialogue that the Occupy movement has
rediscovered is also not new. Consciousness-raising about the
structural and internalised forms of oppression – one heart and mind
at a time – has been a critical component of feminist movements and
LGBT organizing for generations. The alter-globalisation movement of
the 1990s was described by an activist in the gathering as an exciting
unidiomatic experiment – a decisive move away from the hierarchical
and sectarian left that preceded it.

So, while consciousness-raising is not new, maybe it’s been neglected.
And maybe the impression that citizen action is changing is because
today’s mobilizations are compared to the NGO advocacy and campaigning
rather than to real social-movement organizing. The usual NGO approach
to policy advocacy may masquerade as citizen action, but is more
likely to combine a handful of sharp professionals and policy talking
points, a wonkish celebrity and clever slogans, but forget about the
people’s organizing and mobilizing part. Which is to say that there is
no consciousness-raising, only sound bites.

More importantly, in neglecting the consciousness-raising, they forgot
about the need for alternatives. Not just a couple of policy tweaks
but a real alternative. And thus, the world finds itself facing a
total collapse, with the grand failure of neoliberalism and global
financial capitalism, but despite all the fighting against poverty and
injustice by the great NGOs over the last 15 years, we have nothing to
offer as an alternative.

Which is why Occupy Wall Street and its recent precursors are so
refreshing to many activists of all generations. Although the absence
of a big alternative is sorely felt, there is a yearning for a world
that refuses greed and a “get yours and save yourself” ethos.
Although in a slightly different form from past movement work, a big
alternative is taking shape each day in the small discussion circles,
amplified by social media. Visions of transforming culture (not just
policy) have made a welcome return, along with slow, patient,
face-to-face organizing. And guess what? They’re as popular as they
ever were.

Despite the endless hand-wringing by media commentators about the need
for “concrete demands” (read “policy talking points”), protesters
refuse to boil down their simple call for an end to greed, inequality,
and corruption into policy speak. With “WE ARE THE 99%” as their
slogan and the powerful symbol of Wall Street as their target, they
have managed to communicate worldwide to many people who’ve joined
citizen action for the first time.

The resonance of hope, amplified by social media, can be illustrated
by this message the Tunisians sent to the Occupy movement: “So we
stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to
experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to
protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are
occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that
have been commodified, privatised and locked into the hands of
faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios and police ‘protection.’
Hold on to these spaces, nurture them and let the boundaries of your
occupations grow.”

>From fiery debate at The Hague to the latest Occup-ations, the answers
are resoundingly affirmative. Yes, citizen action is changing. Yes,
citizen action is, at its core, the same. And yes, some of today’s
actions are advancing the cause of justice, with the groundswell of
youth mobilization holding real promise. The message from the
Tunisians, however, leaves us with the larger and very old question:
“How do we transform citizen action into sustained change for justice
and equality?” We’re still working on the answer to that one.

The conference 'The Changing Face of Citizen Action: A Knowledge
Exploration' was organised by  Hivos, The Centre for Internet and
Society, The Institute of Development Studies and International
Institute of Social Studies

Creative Commons
This article is published by Lisa Veneklasen, and
under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it with
attribution for non-commercial purposes following the CC guidelines.
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Original Link:

D a v i d    S a d o w a y   BES, MRM
PhD Candidate
Department of Urban Planning & Design
The University of Hong Kong
Email:  one1earth at
Visiting Associate
Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies
Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan)
Email: bigbluearth at

D a v i d    S a d o w a y   BES, MRM
PhD Candidate
Department of Urban Planning & Design
The University of Hong Kong
Email:  one1earth at
Visiting Associate
Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies
Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan)
Email: bigbluearth at

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