The crisis of Capitalism, role of technology and our imaginations
Samantha Camacho, Jerome Scott, Alfredo Lopez and Melanie Bush
The Internet is a fundamental reality of our times and nearly 60% of the people worldwide use it regularly for professional and personal purposes. The technology and protocols that drive the Internet were inventions of scientists working for the U.S. government. Over time, however, it has become clear that the Internet is, actually, its 4.5 billion users, and it has developed with the engagement of journalists, social and “special interest” groups, and political organizations. The Internet was quickly recognized as a vehicle for intensified and unprecedented sharing of ideas, information, experiences and plans, but that came with its own challenges. The neoliberal machine, for instance, took heed of this potential and began integrating the Internet within their business plans to maximize profits. Similarly, governments realized that vast amounts of critical information on people and their activities were available on the Net and began exploiting it for surveillance purposes. This, then, is the most profound technological challenge of our times – whose Internet is it? For what purpose will future innovations in the Internet be used? And, most importantly, will people and communities control the evolution of the Internet or will a small elite commandeer it for their narrow interests?
In this brief essay, members of the May First Movement Technology Board share their perspectives on the historical context of this moment, the role technology is playing in the contemporary crisis and its potential to significantly contribute to building a world based on concern for the common good.
A historic teachable moment, and why?
We are living in an urgent and teachable moment. Challenges are mounting against racial, classed, gendered and sexualized oppression in both the global and domestic arena. Can technology help us devise strategies to engage in an anti-capitalist revolutionary process that consolidates these efforts and helps us confront white supremacy and hetero-normative patriarchy in the US, and globally? Can it help us build a life-generative world based on justice, liberation and love? History has shown us that technology plays a central role in upholding the structures of discrimination and exploitation within a society, and is not something separate and outside of the political, economic and social context. We, at MFMT believe that a transformation from a competitive society to a cooperative society could allow the ongoing digital revolution to produce a vast abundance of the necessities of life. Global connectivity can be activated to meet the needs of humanity and protect all living beings and the planet. It is possible to achieve community-based democracy, technology and a society built on care, justice and concern for all living beings. This is a matter of will. Whether this is something that the working and poor people will demand and fight for is the critical question of our historic moment.
Technology and the revolutionary process
Over the last quarter century or so capitalism has been challenged in its technological transition from industrial and machine-based production that is labor enhancing to digital and robotic production that is labor replacing. This is causing a major disruption in the production and distribution of the necessities of life. Production with fewer workers means that ever-larger swathes of today’s multiracial and multi-gendered working class are “disposable” to the capitalist operations. Without work and wages, they are unable to meet basic human needs. These changes are now speeding up in the midst of the COVID pandemic and many millions of jobs have already been lost. Most of these will not return, including those being digitized and automated. The deepening economic crisis that has occurred as a result of COVID sets the stage for the future and must be understood as we consider our responses to new weapons in the arsenal of the state, all enhanced by digital technology: surveillance, monitoring, intimidation, tracking and direct violence. MFMT is actively pursuing answers to these emerging challenges.
May First Movement Technology / Technology & Revolution Convergences
May First Movement Technology is a democratically run, not-for-profit cooperative of movement organizations and activists in the United States and Mexico. Founded in 2005, our 850 members (mostly organizations in the U.S. and Mexico) host over 10,000 email addresses and over 2,000 web sites on our collectively owned and secured hardware that run exclusively on encrypted disks. Our members run our organization via a race and gender diverse elected body of movement activists, organizers and technologists. We participate in networks, coalitions and campaigns organizing around many technology related issues. MFMT has distinguished itself in confronting many legal threats and standing up to subpoenas. The organization engages in building movements by advancing the strategic use and collective control of technology for local struggles, global transformation, and emancipation without borders.
In relation to this historical moment, we at May First believe that information technology can help us address the threats of climate change, economic inequality and other socio-political challenges of our times. Technology for the common good has limitless potential to meet the needs of all living beings.
The “Technology and Revolution” Campaign
In 2017 we initiated a “Technology and Revolution” campaign to talk with movement organizers about how we can harness that power. Nearly 1,000 activists participated in 18 convergences throughout the United States, and Mexico. Open discussions about what our movement should be doing about technology, identified hundreds of priorities, from which themes consistently emerged:
- Assure a neutral internet
- Oppose, restrain and ultimately eliminate intrusive government internet surveillance
- Provide everyone full access to high-speed internet
- Develop an Internet that can be democratic, open and free of corporate pressure.
- Improve and deepen the collaboration between movement technologists and other movement activists and organizations.
These led us to reflect on the challenges of protecting a free and open Internet and about technology’s role in the future. In 2018-2019 we organized 5 congresses to further develop these themes. We offered a few readings and a Discussion Guide to help ground the conversation, and decisions on how to facilitate the conversations were left up to the organizers.
Points of unity emerged from these congresses:
- To improve and deepen the collaboration and mutual education between movement technologists and other movement activists and organizations.
- Provide everyone with full, FREE, high-speed, equitable, access to the Internet, with no content restrictions.
- Build an Internet that is democratic, community-centered and governed, open, decentralized, and free of corporate pressure and monopolies.
- Build a political technology campaign to oppose, restrain, and ultimately eliminate government surveillance.
- Focus technology development to prioritize sustainability, build communities that thrive, repair damage to the environment and build a world of climate justice.
- To seek out, build, and embrace the potential of digital technologies to protect and advance our movements.
- Foster political consciousness about the centralization of technology in movement work and the urgency of revolutionary movement-based technology.
- Expand the technology conversation beyond settler/colonial technology and thinking to be culturally relevant, intersectional and grounded in political education and historical context.
These intense conversations took hours, and the consensus was that community run and owned technology is central to our collective future. We need to heighten awareness of this fact. The challenge is that unless we deal with issues of power and the reality of capitalism, hetero-normative patriarchy and white supremacy, technology’s capacity will be limited. We therefore focus on technology rooted in building the movement for working class and poor people’s power.
How technology can fortify global movements
Technology’s use in social movements provides tools to strengthen and expand ideas, projects and direct actions. As Samantha Camacho, one of the co-authors, says, “…as a Latin American mestizo woman, I visualize technological development as being co-opted by privileged groups, where the needs and voices of resistance are not being reflected. It is hard work to identify and adopt useful tools for the struggle, work that is not always possible to do beyond immediate response and reaction to very specific risks such as surveillance and monitoring.”
Currently, technology is ever present and has implications for our daily work. Two scenarios demonstrate its impact:
In the first case, movements that are “open” can reach many people in different locations, so their communication, organization and advocacy processes will be through open platforms, mostly digital. People who participate do not necessarily know each other physically, they only coincide ideologically, so their life experiences can be a factor of disagreement. Organizational spaces can be varied and exist simultaneously, in most cases without control of participation, which can result in violating personal profiles and / or anonymity. Open organizational spaces can be conducive to the rapid flow of ideas and the construction of new narratives and can lead to the emergence of new organized groups that propose concrete actions beneficial to the movement. On the other hand, collective care agreements are difficult to make and maintain in the long term because participation is constantly changing.
In “closed” movements there are groups small enough for people to know each other personally. Besides sharing ideology they are involved in organizational processes that allow them to generate bonds of trust and safe spaces. In extreme cases they will use security protocols that require encryption tools and a more meticulous care of identity, anonymity and personal data. These require generating agreements of coexistence and collective care that in the long run contributes to having a more intertwined and co-responsible movement. They are more successful in generating information, organizing it, analyzing it and distributing it. When the tools are more specialized they require a learning curve that is unsustainable when done individually. It necessarily requires a collective commitment.
Talking about how technology contributes to the development or success of social movements often fails to recognize the dynamics of the people involved and on the breadth of the movement itself. Decisions can be made according to needs and risks, yet collective agreements and periods of learning and testing are always required.
Technology” and the Internet: The People and Our Imagination
Look at your computer without assumptions and what do you see? It’s a box: an inanimate object, using electricity and some machined parts inside it with wires attached. It does nothing and means nothing because, sitting there in isolation from the rest of the world, it is nothing. The moment you turn it on and connect to the Internet, everything is transformed. This box is part of a network of 4.5 billion people, globally. We share information, ideas, activities and what’s important to us. It is the most remarkable project of communication the human race has ever engaged. That, for us, is the Internet — not the technology that drives it.
Discussion often rages about whether the Internet is a force for good or evil though that is not the most critical question. The more important question about this massive act of human communication is why it emerged now, leading to most of the people on earth talking to each other? Human history offers the answer. We opened this essay with a description of the crisis that the human race is facing. Few now doubt that the crisis is existential and consists of failing societies, collapsing economies and a battered and threatened environment. If we don’t solve this crisis, it will destroy everything. Not everyone thinks about that all the time but we can safely assume that almost everyone feels it.
Human history is littered with such crises, which have sometimes come close to wiping us out as a species. They vary in cause and intensity but have one thing in common: in our response, we have a natural tendency to band together, rely on each other and share what we each have learned. We have survived as a species because we collaborate, not just cooperate (something many species do instinctively) but actually share the tasks of the present while also thinking about the future: planning, foreseeing, and imagining about what the world could and should look like to assure that we survive. We can envision tomorrow and that vision drives our collective action today.
The process of “imagining”
How do we do this imagining? We think together with the entire human race. As you think right now, your thoughts are derived from the thinking of the entire human race. There is, in reality, no such thing as an original idea. Every idea can be traced back, further and further to the thinking of others. Our mind is the collective experience of humanity. That is why we have an Internet. It is the mass intellectual collaboration of the entirety of the human race made immediately possible through information technology. It is a kind of mega-mind and that brings into relief its fundamental importance. If the Internet is used for bad purposes that mind is going to go in bad directions. We can win the Internet if we struggle for and manage to democratize it, and we can use it for productive purposes. We can do anything we want with it.
In May First’s Technology and Revolution series described earlier in this essay, participants engaged in an exercising of imagination. They were asked to describe elements of the world they think we should have with no limits and no consideration about feasibility. Dream. Imagine. The contributions in these groups, usually made up of about 20 people, were written on a blackboard. They would fill four or five boards in a 15-minute exercise. Then we would look at them as a group and realize something remarkable. All of it, every single item, can be achieved right now. Nothing these groups of activists came up with is impossible given the technology we already have. The vision of a sustainable society, a dream for many was described in those hundreds of ideas, is a feasible option for our world.
A vision for the future
How we collectively develop that vision is the challenge. The human race has answered that challenge by developing the Internet. In an instant, we can now share knowledge, open our lives and thinking to others, understand the challenges that people face in different parts of the world, compare how we respond to those challenges in different places, understand what we have in common and plan our lives and actions world-wide based on that understanding. Of course, we’re not the only people who see the Internet. Governments and powerful corporations recognize the power of the Internet and have been quick to understand and exploit its potential. The struggle over the Internet right now is not whether or not they’re going to shut it down but how it’s going to be used. Will its use be limited to advertising, marketing and repressive surveillance or will it be used to meet human needs, share our lives, build our collective imagination and plan ways to realize a society that sustains and realizes our imaginings?
That’s why May First Movement Technology combines our two tasks: sharing technological resources like web-hosting, email provision and cloud storage and web conferencing; and participating as an organization of the movement for fundamental change in all kinds of networks, campaigns and educational work. These aren’t separate tasks for us; they are part of the same effort because, in the end, that technology is only the most efficient and effective way of sharing imagination and that sharing of imagination is what fuels those networks and campaigns.
We dedicate ourselves to Internet work because we are convinced that it is key to building a sustainable world and, in practice, is a major step in the building of a global democracy that can make that world possible.
Samantha Camacho is a May First Movement Technology Board Member (Mexico) and a specialist in spatial analysis, geographic database management, digital mapping, and community mapping. She was part of the assembly of the Hackerspace Rancho Electrónico in Mexico City, getting involved in different projects of mapping and data visualization and, in issues related to privacy and personal data protection, the latter with the Feminist Digital Self-defense group, both spaces were created with the aim of facilitating research and experimentation with free software tools. She is currently a Researcher-Cartographer at “Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research” (PODER).
Jerome Scott is a former auto worker, labor organizer in the auto plants of Detroit in the 1960s-70s, and member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. He was the founding director of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide. He serves on the board of the General Baker Institute, the National Planning Committee of the United States Social Forum, co-chair of the Board of May First Movement technology, and is active in social justice movement organizations, including the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. He is author and co-author of numerous chapters and articles on the global capitalist crisis, race, class, and gender, the revolutionary process, and transformative social movements toward socialism.
Alfredo Lopez is a founder of May First Movement Technology, the largest political progressive Internet membership organization in this country, where he coordinates the organization’s work in campaigns, networks and coalitions. During his half-century of movement activism, he has been a leader in the Puerto Rican Independence, labor and anti-war movements; organizer of several major national demonstrations and scores of smaller ones; editor of two publications (Claridad and Sevendays Magazine); radio and television producer (and host); college teacher; and author of six published books and hundreds of published articles. His most recent book is “Goodies from the Yum Yum Tree: the Internet and Revolution in the Final Days of Capitalism”.
Melanie E. L. Bush is Professor of Sociology, Adelphi University; Research Fellow, University of South Africa. Her publications include: Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie or Reality(with Roderick D. Bush), Everyday Forms of Whiteness: Understanding Race in a “Post-Racial” World, and lead editor of Rod Bush: Lessons from a Radical Black Scholar on Liberation Love and Justice. She is co-chair of the Board of May First Movement Technology. She is active in People’s Strike, a coalition that emerged in response to the COVID pandemic seeking to build working class and oppressed people’s power to build the world we know is possible.
Contacts for MFMT – email: [email protected]. and the website: https://mayfirst.coop/en/
Discuss these articles on our forum
7 thoughts on “The crisis of Capitalism, role of technology and our imaginations”
The internet is the billions of networked people, and not the technology, the authors claim. In calling it ‘sustainable’ has adequate thought been given to the hardware that the technology demands? Or do they claim that if the advertising and marketing and such are left out, it will not involve dependence on the sort of large scale mining we see today, with its many socia-economic costs? And will it be able to incorporate the billions more who are not part of the network today, and yet be truly sustainable?
The objects of Radical Ecological Democracy (RED) are laudable and praiseworthy. Whereas, I have not been able to witness anywhere in the world nations, an absolute democracy in governance except on paper, to the best of my knowledge and imagination. For instance, racial discrimination is rampant in reality contrary on what is on paper. To be fair to the concept of democracy, people need to be responsible and self disciplined to respect and practice democratic principles in their daily life. But, human mind acts like a monkey to disregard the said principles, which eventually necessitates enforcement. Unless, people are trained right from their childhood, self discipline and civic behavior can not be brought forth.
Therefore, it is an open question, whether or not democratic governance is possible anywhere among the world nations in its true sense and spirit.
Thanks for these two comments. Both are important and are difficult to answer because they demand speculation based on conditions that are constantly changing and, hopefully, will change for the better.
First of all, on Anuradha Arjunwadkar’s thoughtful point. We are always thinking about the labor and materials involved in making these physical networks on which the Internet is based. Clearly, a fully liberatory Internet is not feasible within the confines of capitalism as we now know it. You need a redistribution of resource, a changed policy about resource use (with international cooperation and a more sustainable orientation towards how this machinery is designed and manufactured. The point we’re making is that, by pushing for a more equitable Internet, we joined the multi-faceted struggle for that different world. In fact, May First is involved in that kind of work almost constantly. So the anwer is yes, we’re thinking about it. No, it’s not feasible yet. Yes, we want to construct that world and believe that the struggle for a free and sustainable Internet is a component of the struggle to create that world.
In short, the power of “imagination” facilitates the power to change things for real. 🙂
I personally agree with the second comment by Srinivasa Kunuthur. Actually, the professor raises a point we raise inside May First and in our movements all the time. We think such a democracy is possible but it must be built and that construction is not easy and certainly not immediate. It takes work and stumbles along the way. Our point is that Internet communications is an important part of that work andthe discussion required world-wide to build the movement towards such a democracy. As the crisis in this world deepens, that communication becomes more important and actually broadens. As the communication broadens and deepens, the construction of a democracy society becomes more and more possible.
In a sense, democracy can’t really be built in one country. It requires the thinking, participation and involvement of all humanity. But our point is that the Internet is our best tool for making such world-wide collaboration possible.
Alfredo, thanks for the responses, but I think Anuradha’s main point has not been adequately dealt with, other than that you are thinking of the ‘labour and materials involved’. The question of whether billions of people being on the internet is sustainable from a materials/energy point of view, given that the internet infrastructure is dependent on mining and energy consumption. Every email we send has an ecological footprint … and one can even say this is more seductive because the impact is virtually invisible to the internet user! My response to her worry would be that while in the global structure we are in, the internet offers an enormous tool for mobilisation, in the long run as we achieve greater radical democracy and localised self-reliance for basic needs, hopefully the need for constant back and forth communication around the world will go down, and one can seek restraint and responsibility from all internet users (just as one would do for any other form of materials/energy use, like physical travel). For a start, we’ll need only a fraction of the webinars we are all engaging in these days, most of them meant to respond to ongoing crises! But in general, the issue of ‘how much demand can be sustained’ is as important for the internet as it is for any other technology or production/consumption system.
Pingback: Boletín Oficial ESFeiro: novembro 2020 - ESF Galicia
Pingback: Boletín Oficial ESFeiro: novembro 2020 - Ingeniería Sin Fronteras
Pingback: Economics & Technologies: Books, Reports, & Newsletters - Vikalp Sangam