The limits of ‘new power’

by Anne Coombs

IN THE PAST decade, using the internet to harness people’s passion and direct it in support of issues and causes has become an important part of civil society. And in that time the methods have evolved with the technology. What was once innovative – the email list, the online petition – is now passé. Social media channels such as Twitter and Instagram are the new chords of connectivity. Any non-government organisation worth its salt now has a social-media presence and an email petitioning tool, from Save the Children to The Nature Conservancy. You can even follow the Cancer Council on Twitter.

The tools may be new but activists are still trying to do that old-fashioned thing: change the world. The power of the technology has made that seem more tantalisingly possible than ever. It has spawned a whole new professional class of online campaigners and given new tools to more traditional organisers. And it has made possible a degree, and a scale, of co-operation and collaboration never seen before. In the ten years since the online campaigning organisation GetUp! started, much has changed in progressive activism.

GetUp! was based on MoveOn, the US progressive campaigning organisation that ultimately helped to get President Obama elected. Back then, using email to garner tens of thousands of signatures on a petition was new and powerful. GetUp! started in 2005 at the time the Howard Government gained control of both houses of parliament, potentially giving the government carte blanche authority to pass contentious legislation. The target was Coalition back-benchers: make them nervous and one might see some dissent in Coalition ranks. A deluge of email into MP’s inboxes started to have an effect in the lead-up to the 2007 election. Early successes include campaigns to protect the ABC; to maintain the availability of the so-called abortion pill, RU486; getting David Hicks out of Guantanamo and, with others, getting kids out of detention. GetUp! was an important part of the momentum that swept John Howard from office and was influential in him losing his own seat. What became known as the ‘battle for Bennelong’ was one of the first examples of GetUp! supporters working on the ground.

Since then the number and variety of organisations using similar methods has grown rapidly. People may have lost faith in the effectiveness of politics and politicians but they are interested in the issues that affect them personally or which resonate on a moral level. It’s the reason why issue-based campaigns such as those run by GetUp! or Change.org attract so many to sign up. Some of the issues are big, like transitioning to renewable energy; others small, like protecting koalas in the path of a motorway. These campaigns give people the opportunity to have a say, make them feel they can have influence. And sometimes they do, particularly with the kind of small, localised campaigns that Change.org specialises in.

SO THIS IS a good time to sit back and reflect on what all this activity has amounted to. It has certainly meant there is a robust civic life; that people have far more opportunity to engage with issues that concern them. But it also means the landscape is crowded. Jam-packed, in fact, with organisations, information and entreaties: sign, donate…even just to read! One could spend half a day just signing petitions. Is it any wonder that older people remain the most loyal and engaged? They are the ones with the time. This is a new kind of volunteering, giving one’s name and money without leaving the house.

When sympathies are engaged by so many causes, how important is any one of them? Perhaps it depends on personality: some are dedicated to one cause and it takes all their energy and focus. But I am sure I am not alone in feeling buffeted by a sea of competing causes. Or maybe the forest is a better metaphor: so crowded with trees in the immediate landscape that it is impossible to see the whole forest.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what is happening to progressive politics. That term ‘progressive’ is much used but rarely defined. It hasn’t sprung from nowhere. It’s grown from the ashes of the ideologies that preceded it. In a previous decade it might have been known as the ‘moderate left’ but even that doesn’t work in an age when those sympathetic to asylum seekers or worried about climate change are quite likely to have always voted Liberal. It means that progressives can appear to have no guiding philosophy or theory as to how society works. Which leads one to wonder what it amounts to, beyond a clutch of good causes?

Politics in the twentieth century was dominated by the grand narrative of left and right, of labour versus capital. Proponents of Marxism, socialism, capitalism and various other ‘isms’ did battle. By the end of the century capitalism had cleared the others from the field. The neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan became the new normal, although in the 1990s there was at least a debate about the consequences of what was called ‘economic rationalism’ in Australia. Now even that contention has disappeared, despite growing international concern about inequality.

So the economic system, the thing we are told determines our wellbeing, is left largely undiscussed. I almost never get asked to sign a petition that asks any fundamental questions about our economic system. Pensions, the dole for unemployed youth, GP co-payments – yes, all of these. But they are the trees, not the forest.

In her latest book, This Changes Everything (Simon and Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein argues that if we are serious about addressing the climate crisis it will require radical change to economic and political systems, and that climate activists are wrong to pretend it can be done without that kind of disruption. When she visited Australia in 2015, people appeared stunned when she openly questioned the kind of capitalism we currently possess. But a lot of them – you could see it on the faces in the audience – were delighted, too.

It is this hunger for an alternative to neoliberalism that has led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the British Labour Party. A lot of people have a gut feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong about the direction we’ve taken over the past quarter century. It may be that this is one of the reasons people have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is almost certainly the reason why people on the left are almost as disgusted with Labor as they are with the conservatives. In the UK, establishment Labour figures reacted with horror to Jeremy Corbyn’s election. But Corbyn’s popularity is an indication that the ground may be shifting, that questions are again being asked about the neoliberal orthodoxy.

IN THE LANDSCAPE of progressive organising one doesn’t talk about capitalism versus socialism, or left and right, but of new power versus old power. The characteristic of new power is that it is diffuse, participatory, non-hierarchical. It is people doing it for themselves rather than being told what to do. It is crowdfunding, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb. It’s about living lives outside the strictures and limitations imposed by the old-power institutions – banks, governments and churches. Heady stuff! It is the way social media works as well – not defying authority but ignoring it.

It allows us to imagine we are free agents, that through sheer force of numbers we can get powerful institutions, be they corporations or governments, to bend to our will. Enthralled by the new forms of commerce and communication, we’ve become blasé about what we are giving away in exchange.

One could argue that the reason there isn’t a radical political theory attached to the work of progressive campaigners is that people are pretty happy with the system we have. Those who want change in climate policy tend to argue for market-based measures. So mesmerised are we by the market model that even those who want change rarely expound anything that will truly disrupt the system.

GetUp! is now one of many similar organisations around the world, including 38 Degrees in the UK, Campact in Germany and Leadnow in Canada. The movement is growing rapidly, with more than a dozen others in start-up mode, from Poland to Columbia to South Africa. The man who has been at the centre of this burgeoning global enterprise is American Ben Brandzel. A dynamo of ideas and energy, he now spends his time fostering the global spread of the movement through his initiative, the Online Progressive Engagement Network – or OPEN. Much of the work involves mentoring and training young campaigners. The philosophy behind the network is that while each country has its own way of doing things, organisers can learn from the experience of their peers in other countries.

Brandzel has identified the key characteristics of these organisations: progressive, grassroots, member-driven, nimble, multi-issue, independent and using technology innovatively. In addition to the national groups there are others that operate globally, using similar methods. The New York-based Avaaz, ‘a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere’, has more than forty-one million supporters. SumOfUs, also based in New York, works on targeting multinational corporations and has 5.5 million supporters. Then there are organisations like 350.org, which works on climate change. (Its name comes from the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is meant to be the limit for sustainability: 350 parts per million.) With others, 350.org is heavily involved in the fossil-fuel divestment movement. In the past year that movement has grown fifty-fold. Four hundred and thirty institutions in forty-three countries, managing assets worth US$2.6 trillion, have committed to divest from fossil fuels.

The young professional campaigners who work for these and a plethora of other organisations are part of a tightly knit global family. They share a passion for human rights, economic fairness and environmental sustainability. Many move between organisations – the path from Sydney to New York is well-trodden. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who started SumOfUs in 2011, previously worked at GetUp!. Brett Solomon, its first national director, went to New York to work for Avaaz and in 2009 started up Access, a global digital rights organisation. From a couple of guys with an idea, Access now has dozens of staff and seven offices around the world – in places like Tunis and Costa Rica – which means they can operate twenty-four hours a day to come to the aid of activists whose governments may be trying to shut them down (or worse). Access is constantly pushing boundaries; its work saves lives.

Every year several thousand campaigners come together in the US for the annual Netroots Nation conference, to hear about the latest start-ups, the most successful campaigns, the latest innovations – technical and otherwise. The progressive campaigning space is a very, very busy one. Most people learn on the job but increasingly there are programs and fellowships specifically designed to train activists.

Change.org, ‘the world’s platform for change’, has a following of more than a hundred million people. Although generally clumped in with the ‘progressives’, Change.org is deliberately agnostic when it comes to values: it offers a platform to run campaigns on almost anything (they do draw the line at hate campaigns). Once you subscribe to Change.org your inbox will be inundated with causes.

The criticism often levelled at these kinds of activist organisations is that they encourage ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ – that they require nothing more of supporters than to click on a petition or a ‘donate’ button. The theory is this is an easy entry point that allows people to become more engaged if they want: ‘a low floor and a high ceiling’. Over the past ten years, GetUp! supporters have been encouraged not only to sign petitions and donate money, but to meet their local MPs, write letters, organise community meetings, attend rallies and vigils, hand out how-to-vote cards, doorknock, change to renewable energy and protest to banks, supermarkets and chain stores; sometimes winning, sometimes not, but always bringing an issue into greater public awareness.

But after ten years Australia still has a government that refuses to put a price on carbon, keeps refugees in indefinite detention, refuses to legalise gay marriage and continues to subsidise coal companies. So what is going wrong?

PROFESSIONAL CAMPAIGNERS TALK about having a ‘theory of change’: a step-by-step plan to get from where you are to your goal. Plans are good. But ‘theory of change’ is bandied about much as previous generations incanted ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘workers rights’. It’s like a golden mantra: the theory you have when you don’t have a theory.

Can issue-based campaigning change the broader narrative? Can it influence where a country lies on that sliding scale that has conservative at one end and progressive at the other? Can it lead to lasting legal change? Perhaps a plethora of campaigns can, and organisations like GetUp! can operate on that principle.

Measuring success is difficult. Often it is measured by the number of people who turned out at a rally, or signed a petition, or the amount of money raised. With some organisations, just getting a campaign out the door is seen as a success. The hard question – what did that protest, that petition, that TV commercial achieve – is too often sidestepped. The campaign, the organisation, moves on to the next thing.

No one can expect one protest, petition or advertisement to change government policy. But if such tactics are repeated and still there is no change in the broader public narrative, or the law, then the campaign has a problem. An example of a campaign that has been successful by this measure is marriage equality. Australian same-sex couples don’t yet have marriage equality, but they are much closer to it than they were five years ago thanks to a strategic long-term campaign conducted on multiple fronts, plus a successful global movement. Persistence on the part of advocates has paid off, but not yet delivered: the subject is on the public agenda, community attitudes are in favour and legislative change will almost inevitably follow.

Contrast this with the failure of refugee advocates over a ten-year period. (I can say this, having been one.) Persistence did not pay off. In fact, it probably had the reverse effect. The electorate remained deaf to repeated entreaties that the cruelty of the refugee policy was causing people indelible harm. The only real ‘wins’ were, occasionally, in the courts.

But something changed in September 2015 with the photo of three-year-old Alan (originally named as Aylan) Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach. It was suddenly clear what it meant to be a refugee. There he was before us: a nicely dressed child wearing smart little shoes, dead because his family was trying to flee to safety. Overnight, all those years of being told that boat people were a menace, not to be tolerated, amounted to nothing: he could have been anyone’s child. Brief moments can make a difference, and this one did.

Whether that moment will have a lasting effect on Australians’ attitude to refugees and asylum seekers remains to be seen. We saw images from Europe that we have not been allowed to see closer to home (such as the look on the faces of desperate people as their boat is turned around). And Australia suddenly turned from a heartless country into one that cared. The photo of Alan Kurdi was a (temporary) tipping point. It achieved more than hundreds of petitions or candlelit vigils ever could. More than a truckload of submissions to government, or the testimony of dozens of expert witnesses. While its enduring legacy remains to be seen, without the years of activism even that moment could have come and gone and had little ripple effect. Ben Brandzel believes the progressive movement needs to be able to capture the energy that is generated from moments of outrage. ‘Without [a] structure, all that energy dissipates. Every time a moment happens without this network structure in place is a heartbreaking loss.’

Because of the work of campaigners, the death of one child will save the lives of tens of thousands. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who after some soul-searching re-tweeted the photo, sending it out into the world, knew its power.

AS THE USE of social media changes, so does social-change campaigning. A few years ago the big debates were around online versus off-line – mobilising people by email or getting out into the field and organising people on the ground. Twitter has changed that debate, often linking the two: notifying people about what is going on, and causing them to rally on the streets, as has happened in Spain and Ukraine, and the streets of Melbourne during the protest against Border Force that was whipped up in minutes in August 2015.

Such moments, ‘Twitter storms’, allow people to come together quickly and express their outrage. And sometimes – as in Melbourne – it can have an immediate effect, with Border Force abandoning its planned operation. Such moments seem to be particularly good at reminding government how far they can go; just how much people will tolerate.

Yet the Border Force still exists, the legislation that brought it into being remains. Its power has not changed because of that demonstration outside Flinders Street station. The question of whether Twitter or crowdfunding or hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition can lead to real change has not yet been answered. Circumventing the old institutions is not the same as changing them – that requires legal and political action.

But one form of organising that is beginning to have significant influence is corporate campaigning, encouraging consumers to switch banks or energy retailers, persuading institutional shareholders to divest from companies that mine coal or run detention centres. Using the system to fight the system. Companies are sensitive to public opinion, so this is a fruitful way of highlighting a company’s behaviour and ‘encouraging’ it to change. Probably the first effective campaign of this sort was several years ago when ANZ was persuaded not to finance the Gunns’ pulp mill in Tasmania. A similar campaign has been underway to stop banks financing Adani’s Carmichael mine project in Queensland.

GetUp! has also been active in mobilising shareholders, most notably when its members who were shareholders in Woolworths forced the company to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting on the supermarket chain’s ownership of poker machines.

Corporate and institutional activism moved into a new phase with the No Business in Abuse (NBIA) campaign against companies that profit from the operation of detention centres. The principal target has been Transfield Services, which changed its name to Broadspectrum. It has run the detention centres on Manus and Nauru since 2014, and in 2015 was given a further contract for five years. NBIA is the brainchild of Shen Narayanasamy, and came under the GetUp! umbrella when Narayanasamy became its human rights director last year. The campaign targets institutional investors who may be alarmed at their organisation being tarnished by association, particularly as the treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention comes increasingly under the spotlight. This is potentially a breakthrough campaign. It changes the way mandatory detention is discussed.

PROGRESSIVE CAMPAIGNERS ARE always looking for new ways to build a constituency or deepen member engagement. Encouraging people to install solar panels or switch to a renewable energy retailer is one way of doing that, so that people feel like they are joining a community, hooking up with others who live and think like them. To turn progressive campaigning from a bunch of grassroots, activist collectives into organisations that can wield new power means securing loyal and committed supporters – people who will do more than sign an email petition.

Political allegiance has traditionally been created by appealing to people through the issues they care about. But it could be that merchandising, either goods or services, is one another way of securing that ‘brand loyalty’. Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia) has done it successfully for years through its shops. The NRMA always advocated for better roads but it gained a big membership by providing members with roadside assistance, and turned into a major business by selling insurance.

NRMA is an interesting example. When it became a listed company, its purpose changed from member service and advocacy to making a profit. The word used for this process – demutualisation – says it all, really. It’s what happens when people who come together for the common good are seduced by neoliberalism. It’s a cautionary tale for progressives intent on empire building.

Big powerful campaigns can still be run by volunteers and local groups. Look no further than Lock the Gate. Their work is an example of a ‘single-issue’ campaign that has within it a raft of complementary ideological positions: protecting land and water from desecration by mining, standing up to the power of corporations. It is a rejection of the position that makes profit a governing principle. It puts faith in community action. It backs the rights of traditional owners. It rejects fossil fuels as a future energy source. Perhaps most of all, it believes politicians should listen to the people. This allows Lock the Gate to confront governments and gas and mining companies on a broad flank. People get angry for a host of reasons, and that is always better than one. They also organise in a variety of ways: local groups, protests, blockades, doorknocking, petitions, sit-ins at MPs offices, email, Twitter and alerting people to urgent developments via SMS. Lock the Gate is primarily on-the-ground, has a skeleton staff but an army of dedicated volunteers. There are more than two hundred and fifty groups around the country.

It is largely because of the work of Lock the Gate that during 2014 and 2015 the New South Wales Government cancelled or bought back many coal-seam gas licences, reducing the amount of the state available to be mined from 60 per cent to 9 per cent. But almost immediately the government then announced a strategic-release framework for issuing new licences, which may see many areas under threat again. Campaigners know the battle is not yet over.

In Northern NSW, Metgasco, which had its licence at Bentley, near Lismore, cancelled in 2014, successfully challenged the NSW Government and is planning to resume operations. The long-running Bentley protest spawned Knitting Nannas, older women who took their knitting so they had something to do while they sat on their camp chairs for hours, days, weeks. They’ve become icons of the movement. Dressed in yellow, they are there at every protest, clocking up thousands of kilometres as they travel to support other communities. These women are hardly radicals but their attitude is reminiscent of an old rallying cry: ‘We will not be moved.’

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.