Party-building, consciousness and email
Louis Proyect's recent comments to Lou Paulsen (Re: Party-Building and Action, May 30, 1999), stirred my own thoughts about consciousness in relation to building a party and the way we think about building a movement. An important and also typically difficult aspect of building the working class movement has to do with the problem of multiple grouplets competing for the existing minds of uncommitted workers. The groups have their perspective, their cohesion as a group. They might feel very chary of either sharing or more probably compromising the ties that bind the group. In addition there is the problem of sectarian clashes between groups. We see these on very large scales in various countries. The smaller the scale of course the less resources that can be managed by the groups to use in a clash. These are not trivial issues. They are complex and difficult to manage. Louis refers to the problem in Nicaragua in combining groups,
Louis: If you want to see how a revolutionary movement is built, it is instructive to read George Black's book on the Nicaraguan revolution titled "Triumph of the People". The FSLN was divided into 3 factions, all of which had a mass following that was proportionately at least a thousand times greater than any "Marxist Leninist" group.
Doyle but that was true in Vietnam where Ho Chi Minh managed multiple groupings (I remember a figure like 8 groups that Ho dealt with) being combined in the Vietnamese experience. South Africa gives another cogent example. And so on and so forth.
I am going to comment on this issue from the point of view of consciousness Not in the sense that Lou Paulsen says "correct line",
Lou Paulsen So, how has it worked out that the June 5 demonstration has a correct 'Stop the War' line,
Doyle but in the sense of what the material nature of the mind might tell us concerning how we could view the process of forming a group or a party. There are traditions of what the operating structure of a party are of course, either social democratic, anarchist, or communist, and there are those who can argue for the forms that emerged from world history better than I can. My view is that workers need revolutionary organization, and that structureless parties canıt do the job, so the anarchist model doesnıt work.
I will begin this study of consciousness by examining a newspaper. LP commented how he would like to have Doug Henwood as a cadre to sell the party paper in some low income housing projects. An amusing dilemma of course for Doug Henwood who doesnıt strike one as in his element dealing with the lower and deeper strata of the working class. But LP also implies with this anecdotal joke that selling the paper has been a traditional method for teaching new members or whatever the ropes of organizing.
These days we see the U. S. national press shrinking from multiple daily papers to a single daily in a given city, and the coverage shifting from serious news to coverage mainly determined by sensational content that grabs attention through quick titillation. In addition the main commercial press now has extensive parallel operations using web sites to represent their commercial interests. Aside from the major corporate interests that publish newspapers on the streets of major metropolitan areas, local independent commercial presses give away free weekly news sheets (as supported by advertising).
About twenty years ago when I was a cadre I sold a newspaper (I had a quota of 160 newspapers to sell) at one dollar a paper. It was a hard sell then. It was then unusual in my experience to recruit anyone in that process of selling. In addition it seldom was useful to bring the paper into someoneıs home to organize them into political work. Primarily, the newspaper was written by inexperienced writers, about areas they were not terribly familiar with since our group was pretty small.
To get the point across to a public readership one needs to write about labor issues which means writing about union locals and fast changing events concerning what is happening with businesses in relation to their workers. Another major source of news which demanded attention from our newspaper was language and issues of racism. Obviously writing about another language group would be very difficult for someone who isnıt of that language group. It is hard for heterosexual males steeped in union politics to represent the voice of homosexuals in cultural clashes representing how people form sexual bonds.
A newspaper is hardly something we interact with. It is something one picks up, read, and throw away. Some people do write to the editor. Yet there is no comparison to interactive media for putting pressure in a commercial sense on all newspaper publication these days to respond to the exchange process of communicating opinion back and forth. Just as television news put pressure on newspapers concerning the immediacy and power of visuals after WWII, the capacity to integrate communication through writing back and forth that newspapers canıt do, puts the printed media under pressure about the authority figure of the journalist over the publics voice. Political grouplets can ignore some of that pressure to alter the form of left media, but as LP writes there is a small business pressure upon group operations which relates to a group finding the means to pay for their publications. While the internet is not universally available to ordinary workers a significant fraction has access to the internet and uses computer web or e-mail services. The technical problems of producing something on the internet are quite different from the practical problems of publishing a press. Attention has to shift to the problem of interaction between people that the medium of computing allows. To interact with the working class is important in building a movement, but also relatively new and unknown territory to explore for the left.
For example based upon most peoples experience, the closest analogy to an e-mail service is a phone call. The e-mail service is somewhat like a conference call. But with the added power of having a written copy of the communication to overcome the errors inherent in human listening processes. This sense of exchange is quite different from a newspaper. A newspaper conveys a sense of authority that ordinary readers experience possibly mainly a product of not being able to interact with the writing process. The general danger for a newspaper being that someone who canıt write interestingly will not be read. Whereas an e-mail service does derive a source of power from the level of participating peopleıs experience, but also participation and interaction with others affects people in ways that simply reading a text canıt do. If someone is not read, ignored even, that hardly matters to those who are holding conversations, so the issue is not often about how good the writing is, it is about whether people want to say something to each other. The conversation being the main shaping element of the interactive system. And in the left this process outside of person to person contact has not existed. At least not a technology which allows us to develop a class perspective that uses interaction to build the grouping of active people. Of course we have tried to do that sort of thing in the past, but have lacked tools to accomplish the process in the manner of e-mail.
My own experience with an e-mail subscription is a good example of some well-known aspects of problems with e-mail exchanges. Last year when I started participating in e-mail groups, I felt a lot of trepidation at the unfamiliar social context. Over time I made some typical mistakes in terms of the culture involved. Those mistakes are related to what most people call flaming. We recognize flame exchanges when people finally reach a level of outrage with each other. The e-mail medium fails to give important social clues to one another about how we actually feel of words written to us. Despite the fact that we have all the time in the world to clean up and clearly narrate our views. In ordinary conversation such things hardly ever reach such levels though most people fantasize saying something or other to various antagonists in their lives.
Within these e-mail groups it is clear that after a certain level of exchange, which comes at somewhere around 100 e-mails a day, it is impossible for most people to follow the bulk of most messages. This observation relates to consciousness in the sense that scientific research indicates that brain size is related to how many people we can relate to in a social group. The original humanoid social group is thought to be around 120 plus give or take individuals. Humans can know, given the size of our brains, just so many other individuals and that directly relates to evolutionary adaptation. We see that we have definite limits to how many other people we can follow in conversation in the restriction of the volume of information we can absorb from other people in e-mail groups. Listening in to groups larger than 200 in a mass conversation is about all that we can handle. Hence we realize that certain kinds of political perspective on democracy must be fundamentally affected by the inability to know more than a certain number of individuals.
Returning to the original problem posed by LP at the beginning of this essay LP writes of merging leftist grouplets. We can postulate that in contemporary terms each group represents a state of mind formed by a regulated exchange of communication in the group.
(Re: Time and Stupidity, Wednesday June 2, 1999)
PM was probably the first "politically correct" newspaper in the US in the sense that we use the word today. It was filled with condemnation of insensitive portrayals of minorities in the media, for example. It also refused on principle to run comic strips or a sports section. As it turned out, this is exactly what many working people read newspapers for and they ignored PM in favor of the right-wing Daily News or Mirror.
Another interesting thing is that they were independent of the CP, while still being strongly pro-Roosevelt. The 2 things usually went together. For example, PM campaigned for entry into WWII during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. In fact, I strongly suspect that the high-minded liberal who took the same position played by Katherine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year" was a typical PM'er. Her boyfriend, a sports writer from the working class, played by Spencer Tracy, defended an isolationist line consistent with the CP
The groups coherence based upon the groups "rules" of belonging. Within the group there is an exchange of the sense of other peoples mind which is some sort of convention (reflected in interactivity processes) needed to bind a group of individuals larger than a few hundred. We know in a commonsense way this exchange between groups is a complex process barely summarized by standard word descriptions because the merging of groups is so fraught with instabilities and uncertainties. We sometimes think of a group as being of one mind (like an old married couple), but stable functioning groups are really an agreement upon the nature of social exchange within the group which determines what people might expect of the other group members.
The group is trying to manage many peoples interconnection into a single group consciousness. Success at that exchange process is probably stratified to population levels representing the management of resources that would be demanded of larger and larger coherent groupings. Possibly reflecting how history shows different social systems emerging over time as the numbers of human beings requires greater and greater exchanges of knowledge between individuals as well as food, shelter, and other basics of life.
Consider an example of the technical level of the production of interactive communication from our contemporary times. Roughly when I speak to someone, it is safe to say that phonemes (sound level of the letters in alphabets), the elementary sound components of words, occur before the feeling content of words occur. I mean words produce feelings, letters donıt. This sets a level of about 1 one hundreth (roughly) of a second for realistic consciousness of content in words to begin. Prior to this time barrier, at about 1 one thousandth of a second chemical and neural mechanisms are creating signals which compromise the structure of meaningful language. So we have two levels of the interaction mechanism in language exchange. A conscious level (after the phonemes construct a word) of the meaningful exchange of communication, and another level prior to the conscious level of the constituent elements leading up to the time span beginning at one one hundreth of a second of consciousness. Obviously no human being can really construct things that occur in the thousands of a second with just their hands, we need machine to produce those tiny structures.
The typical visual example that comes to my mind is the need to convey motion in movies by flashing frames in the eye of the beholder at twenty four times a second. We must create tools that manufacture structures in that structural range which determines that seeing motion in movies realistically happens. We must create structures that build the exchange of language up to the level in which consciousness actually occurs. And this is where I surmise typically the problem of communicating will be solved concerning problems like flaming in e-mail.
The content carrying capacity of words is limited. Words are representations of thoughts yet we know how hard it is to express in words what we really feel. For another example it is clear enough that pictures convey more than words. That is a fairly old human observation. In the context of flame wars in internet groups, I would point out that the capacity of words to carry enough information to reliably convey to us that someone we are talking to us really doesnıt like what we are saying is limited and less than ordinary conversation. Yet that demand for understanding we expect of e-mail groupings is precisely the standard that internet groups impose upon the carrying capacity of the communication device. This widespread social mismatch in turn is related to how well basing a group upon an internet connection would fare given how chancy the exchange is conveying what we need to know to build a stable functioning long lasting group.
There is a great advantage to internet groups over groups based upon more primitive means of communication. The advantage being the ability to interact. Newspapers are unable to adequately convey interaction we see in internet forms of social communication and are declining in relation to a system that fosters interaction. Yet interaction demands knowing how others feel in order to get past abrupt disruption of the group by eruptions of intense feelings, flaming. Or said another way, how to provide for mainly peaceful stable groups internally is still to be worked out with regards to the new tools. Beyond a level of a few hundred individuals the primary problem of interaction is the technical resolution of giving enough information productively through the means of mass communication to satisfy the need of people to know what they are part of and participate fully.