Modern Politics as Chaos Theory

social-media-icons-hanging-from-blue-stringNew Orleans   There is no question that social media is a modern phenomenon in a laundry list of ways. Sometimes it is hard to pull substance away from the spin to determine the differences between its importance as a unique communications tool versus its utility as an organizing tool. For example the self-promoting claims of a Facebook-revolution in Egypt or an earlier Twitter-revolution in Iran have been hugely discounted as little more than marketing, and certainly not organizing. On the other hand social media is becoming something altogether different as a political reality, and the rise – and resilience – of Donald Trump is only one example. Recently, the conservative, establishment magazine, The Economist, took a look at how political scientists and others were trying to get their arms around the role of social media in an article that was both fascinating and frightening.

Of course the very public nature and availability of social media makes it possible to study more contemporaneously than might be possible for other social movements. Researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States are spending a lot of time trying to parse various comments, words, and phrases used in online activism in order to measure support and growth of various efforts. Researchers at Hong Kong University for example followed the Umbrella Movement’s public Facebook pages religiously and “measured how interlinked the pages were.” They claim that these numbers were “a good predictor of the mood of the population at large.”

Researchers are also confirming the role of social media lying underneath the Trump phenomena as well. Eli Pariser of Move-On fame has called this a “filter bubble,” meaning that information is moving in a tighter loop without as much diversity as one might find even in the larger internet info-world. Some researchers are claiming in fact that they may be able soon to predict what movements might blossom via social media tracking, though the real data is more likely to be in the hands of companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and, disturbingly, in the hands of governments, both benign and evil.

All of which would argue that the always turbulent House of Cards, Game of Thrones world of politics may be moving to something even more volatile. Quoting from a new book, Political Turbulence, the Economist reports the authors’ conclusions on the future of politics as,

“…better described by chaos theory than by conventional social science: ‘Tiny acts of political participation that take place via social media are the units of analysis, the equivalent of particles and atoms in a natural system, manifesting themselves in political turbulence.’ One day, say the authors, it will be possible to predict and trigger such surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather.”

Tell me that’s not scary!

If true, my old organizing maxim that “if you live by the press, you’ll die by the press,” may have to be updated to add that “if you organize through social media, you’ll also die by social media.” It’s not catchy, but it could be disturbingly true, if a communications tool becomes a window into 1984-style constant monitoring and measuring of collective anger and action. The elements of tactical and strategic surprise are still essential for success of social movements and mass organizations. Hard work could become even more difficult, if they are already sitting there and waiting for us.


Reading a Gene Sharp Book is a Go to Jail Card in Angola

the book club members at sentencing

New Orleans   Many complain that people just don’t read much anymore. Or, at least they don’t read books much. Monitoring devices that people use to read electronic books indicate that men read about 50 to 80 pages of books that they buy and begin to read and women read about 100 pages before abandoning the pursuit for whatever reason.

Other folks might not be reading as much because they lack access, either digitally (geez, am I beating this drum again, and again, and again) or through libraries and the like. And, then there are places like Angola in southwestern Africa along the Atlantic Ocean where reading could be a “Go to Jail” free card. Recently, a group of 17 political activists known as the Luanda Book Club received prison sentences in Angola accusing them of trying to overthrow the government because they were reading and discussing Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, about nonviolence resistance to repressive regimes.

Were they really trying to overthrow the government? I doubt it. Were they trying to make change in Angola? I would bet on it. Was this a danger to the government? Well, that’s an interesting question, but the answer is only if you believe – and many conservatives do for example – that any organization of people involved in – or even thinking about — nonviolent, direct action is a danger to governments, and, if that’s what you believe, then, yes, certainly all organizers and all peoples’ organizations inherently put governments at risk through their thoughts and deeds.

Gene Sharp was a guest a decade ago at an Organizers’ Forum dialogue on tactics and strategy. He later honored me by sending me a half-dozen of his books, and I was grateful to receive them. Sharp, based in Boston is 88 years old now, and in his books, articles, and lectures as well as through his Albert Einstein Institute, he has made a fundamental argument that no government can exist, no matter how allegedly democratic or determinedly autocratic, without a high level of consensus from its subjects. The lesson for organizers, activists, and readers like our friends in Angola, is that if you organize and act collectively to reshape or withdraw that consensus, then you have the opportunity to create change. In some situations this change could be revolutionary.

For Sharp a key criteria for such change is founded on nonviolent civil disobedience. In ACORN advanced training sessions we sometimes would distribute and discuss a list that Sharp developed some years ago of one-hundred possible nonviolent tactics. We would ask organizers after reading and discussing the list to see what they might add. The list would quickly lengthen. Were we looking at Sharp’s list today in the current rage of social media, the list would be longer yet.

Undoubtedly, an injustice is being done to the seventeen activists preparing for their prison sentences in Angola, but a simple protest in solidarity might be as easy as reading one of Gene’s books or even taking a minute and making your own list of nonviolent actions that might make sense and work in these days and times.


Luaty Beirão aka Ikonoklasta was one of those sentenced.  Video of Ikonklasta’s Nós e os Outros