It's not everyday that a former US State Department official actually drafts and publishes a theory for the Wired State -- which is what I call this blog, and what I call that future form of governance when elites without loyalties to states or organizations will rule the world from their smart phones.
But that's what Anne-Marie Slaughter has done in A New Theory for the Foreign Policy Frontier: Collaborate Power in the Atlantic.
In almost giddy fashion, Slaughter, a Princeton professor who used to run policy and planning at State, describes how a tweet from armchair MENA analyst Andrew Carvin of NPR, amplified through her to her former colleagues at State, then on to the influential Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, was able to save a prominent Egyptian-American journalist and blogger Mona Eltahawy with 60,000 followers on Twitter who was arrested -- well, not completely save her, as two bones were broken and she was sexually assaulted.
My first thought about this situation is that Mona's 60,000 followers, especially in Egypt, might have had more to do with keeping her alive than American power, but I could be wrong, I don't know the situation well. That is, we don't know if *their* connections and appeals that must have instantly been made could have had an effect.
My second thought is to recall an early Twitter rescue of this nature -- an American student was detained in Egypt in 2008 in the early days of Twitter, and he managed to tweet out one word -- "Arrested." He was soon released -- although his translator, an Egyptian, wasn't so lucky and spent much longer in jail. People became absolutely rhapsodic about Twitter and wrote entire books about this wonder. But I wrote at the time this headline, "$29 Billion in US Foreign Aid to Egypt in 30 Years Saves Twittering College Kid."
I don't know how much that may still apply in Slaughter's example of "collaborative power," but if someone in the US Embassy in Cairo got on the case through the new smart power (to use Susan Nossel's term) of Twitter, that 30 years of aid and relationship with the Egyptian military probably had somewhat more to do with the effectiveness and the outcome than anyone would like to admit.
To be scientific, this theory of twitter advocacy should work much more than it does. It doesn't. Example. I emailed a colleague in government about Azimjon Askarov's case in Kyrgyzstan after seeing his colleagues tweet about it in Russian on Twitter. They got somebody at post on it, and an Embassy official actually went to his trial and tried to raise the case. His sentence has been reconfirmed; he's still in jail.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, please, please tweet to your friends at State about my friend Andrei Sannikov in Belarus. I know they've done a lot already by imposing sanctions, but they could try to get Russia to do more. And Nicholas Kristof, please write about Sannikov and Belarus. You never have. The foreign news section at the Times has (although the first dispatch from the crackdown on the demonstration last December 19 said "Minsk, Russia" -- ouch). But that was old media. Maybe new media will work? So please please please put your collaborative Twitter magic to work for my friend. And here I'll even ask Mona Eltahawy -- I realize you've just had your bones broken! So has Andrei in the past. You have 60,000 followers. He only has 1,114, and he hasn't tweeted since December 19, 2010, when he wrote, "проголосовал против диктатора. сустрэнемся на Плошчы" -- and that was it. There's less tweeting out of Belarus...
OK, so much for that -- but then after reciting this extraordinary Twitter story -- that may not work every time for everybody, but will work enough times for some elites that it may become Gospel -- let's look at the next part of Slaughter's article -- the actual theory of collaborative power.
I was surprised, at a meeting on social media and Twitter revolutions at the Council on Foreign Relations, when Anne-Marie Slaughter invoked Lenin as someone whom we should appreciate as having achieved amazing results in fighting the Tsar's tyranny -- without Twitter. (Well, he did seize the telegraph stations and Smolny...) I wasn't the only one who was surprised at that invocation, and she hastened to explain herself -- but sort of dug herself in deeper. Sure, we acknowledge the Tsar's yoke of oppression, which Slaughter focused on in her admiration, but look at the terror and totalitarian system that Lenin brought! (I will have to dig out the Twitter exchange I had with her after that).
I mention this because I think Slaughter surely knows the difference between collectivism and collaboration. Collectivism is coercive, and often involves forcibly diminishing the individual, with a few unaccountable secretive leaders actually taking over by stealth or deception (as occurred with Lenin and Stalin and the Bolsheviks). Collectivism can involve nasty things like peer pressure, group-think, self-criticism circles, agitprop, etc. Collectivism can involve "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us" and so on. But collaboration involves voluntary, congenial work together with people who are likeminded, on shared goals.
Likemindedness is really the key precondition for Anne-Marrie Slaughter's theory to work for good, and not evil -- people really need to have some sort of shared values that constitute a higher power than their own group or collaboration itself, that bind them together, or otherwise, any one power-monger in the group can override the others. But likemindedness is just what people don't have -- and they don't have it in this country about simple things like global warming or health care, and they don't have it in the world at large about things like what to do about Syria. The mantra of "progressives" is that they can just identify the *science* involved in this or that issue and then keep "fact-checking" those people who "spread myths and lies" and...prevail. Then they don't. And that's just the problem. They aren't persuasive. They won't be, because they are not likeminded. The real trick of the world is to get along even when you are not likeminded, not to force artificial collaborations that involve people shifting away from their minds.
For how collaboration goes wrong and becomes collectivism, you can study not only Clay Shirky's "A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy" and my refutation of Shirky, "The Core is Our Own Worst Enemy" (although I don't recommend doing more than skimming the end of my piece, as it is very specific to Second Life dialogues and may be impenetrable -- I need to rewrite it for a more general audience.)
In a nutshell, Clay Shirky says that groups can only remain true to their mission if a core takes over and keeps the group in line, "gardens it," so to speak, and remains cohesive. But I find that recipe to be precisely the negative form of collectivism hiding as a group that in fact is really run by a few people. The core itself has to be democratically legitimate, and flexible to newcomers and willing to revise and refresh -- and that's exactly what's missing from Shirky's very rigid notion.
Shirky's collectivism is encapsulated in dictums like this:
The user of social software is the group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the ease of use is only calculated from the user's point of view, it will be difficult to defend the group from the "group is its own worst enemy" style attacks from within.
This is in keeping with his collectivized notion of the individual, who becomes merely a social creature when on line, defined not as an individual but as a networked identity.
Slaughter's notion fits right in with this -- and like Shirky, she'd like the individual and his mindset to erode -- "shift," as she puts it:
Collaborative power can take many forms. The first is mobilization; to exercise collaborative power through not a command but a call to action. The second form is connection. In contrast to the relational power method of narrowing and controlling a specific set of choices, collaborative power is exercised by broadening access to the circle of power and connecting as many people to one another and to a common purpose as possible. A third form (many more dimensions of collaborative power will likely emerge) is adaptation. Instead of seeking to structure the preferences of others, those who would exercise collaborative power must be demonstrably willing to shift their own views enough to enter into meaningful dialogue with others. The first step toward persuading others is often an evident and sincere willingness to be persuaded yourself.
There are 10 things wrong with this idea:
1. In multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council, the naive liberal Westerner willing to sit and hold hands and sing Kumbayah in this way, willing to "shift their own views" is in the minority, or at least, not in control of the whole situation. Russia, China, South Africa, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and so on -- they aren't playing "collaboration". They don't shift their views. They define and maintain them and impose them with awesome forcefulness and cunning tenacity, backed by conventional and nuclear weapons. Ask Amb. Susan Rice whether she could sit down in the Security Council in a discussion on, oh, Syria, and shift her point of view toward the Russian one, which is for not condemning the Syrian government and which has thwarted many a resolution, even promoted by the Arab League.
2. Even that arch-collectivist Lenin himself had a maxim often cited in many a Soviet-dominated situation: before uniting, first we must identify very clearly what our differences are (прежде чем объединяться, надо хорошенько размежеваться). There's nothing wrong with having a position and sticking to it in negotiations with other countries. This can be an articulation of your position, even as you do listen and learn from others who of course are going to be articulating their positions, without any hippie-dippie shifting stuff -- because most of the world is not singing Kumbayah together. You can be collaborative and be a good diplomat and look for creative solutions -- and the US does that in settings like the UN Human Rights Council, which is a really tough assignment -- without losing its mind or its principles.
3. Shifting a position to others just for the sake of group amity can only be seen as weakness by some very bad actors in the multilateral setting (Cuba) and only allows the liberal to be defeated. Shifting does not achieve the goal of working toward "the common purpose" -- assuming that was a good, liberal purpose.
4. Speaking of "the common purpose" -- say, who gets to define it? Liberals in the Obama Administration? Or the Pakistani ISI? What's really more important in the world is not defining and working toward "a common purpose" which really often doesn't exist (China -- Kyoto protocol, for example). Rather, what's a greater-needed skill is the ability to manage conflict. Not to give up your individual agenda. Not to cease pushing for your own good notion against many, many bad actors in the world. And not to imagine you can impose your agenda successfully on other countries at the UN (Washington often has over-expectations in that regard). But to manage real and unchanging differences with the expectation that they will not go away. Defuse and nullify them where possible, make compromises where possible but understand that in some cases, you may be waiting for 30 years for change.
I have watched the UN Security Council very closely for the last 20 years or more. The Soviet Union dissolved and Russia took over its seat. It has not changed its foreign policy or UN positions significantly. That is the reality of the world, not shifting and collaboration.
Example: Some would find the resolution run by the US at the UN Human Rights Council to deflect the Organization of Islamic Council's past resolutions the "defamation of religions" to be a good example of collaborative work. Instead of running a counter-resolution, the US tried to work with the Arab states to get an acceptable set of common goals -- but without undermining the US Constitutional principle of banning critical speech -- unless it could be proven in court that it was to "imminent violence." These were hard circles to square and I don't mean to suggest this particular effort will hold. But I cite it as an example of how actual pragmatic collaboration has worked -- not shifting the position and losing ground and ceding First Amendment principles, but trying to find some commonality in a situation fraught with bad faith by the other parties.
5. Meaningful dialogue is not set by calling for talks with no preconditions, or -- again -- giving up y our principles. Most of the world runs on the principle of force. Most of the world's countries are not liberal democracies. Other countries respect you if you are like them, and have consistent principles, backed by force. It would be great if the world wasn't like this. It would be great if efforts to talk to Iran without preconditions and various cultural gestures and silences about oppression and other things worked. It didn't.
6. The notion that narrowing the agenda is contrasted by connecting as many people as possible doesn't make sense. It seems there are apples and oranges here. In fact, if you want to connect a lot of people, you will have to have, in fact, a narrow agenda. The Millenium Development Goals, for example, were all pretty simplistic and perhaps deliberately not well defined. Things like "end hunger and poverty" or work for "maternal health" or "universal education" are all things that even the most oppressive totalitarian state will at least have to pretend to care about and even the most stingy and cold capitalist-road states will find at least some funds for. The document signed didn't contain the words "human rights" -- and you don't see "media freedom" or even the more developmental "Internet access" on that list -- it would be too confrontational. To connect lots and lots of states and NGOs and prominent individuals behind the MDGs, you had to make them very simple and make the agenda narrow, even if it could have some more complex moving parts according to this or that state (like increase of funding for HIV/AIDS in some specific national plan).
7. Some of this theory sounds like a call to mass action, but masses don't always achieve goals. Crowd-sourcing, global movements and so on are hugely fashionable now, but there is a great deal of lying about them. These can often be an inch deep and a mile wide -- they can be deceptively massive around some pre-fabricated slogan made by a few cadres like "We are the 99 percent" who have to oppose "the 1 percent," but they evaporate even if chanted endlessly on social media and t-shirts and even covered by the mainstream media if there really isn't any authentic content to them -- at least of the kind that most people not schooled in arcane Marxist ideological precepts can get behind.
There's no need to be massive to be effective in collaboration. The problem with the concept of the "widest possible number connected" is that it becomes serial processing, and not parallel processing, depending on "influencers" and "thought leaders" and all those other horrid Silicon Valley concoctions at the top of what becomes in fact a vertikal. Many had the illusion that there was some collaborative "general assembly" "directly participating" and "doing democracy" in Occupy Wall Street. Did they never read the transcripts?! The cadres decided everything, as they always have.
And...Sometimes it's good to work in small places, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it. Maybe it's more important for lots and lots of circles of people to find their way and do their thing than for one massive online phenomenon to take place.
8. I can't say it enough -- collectivism always devolves to the few who show up and do the work and is not real democracy. "Participatory democracy" is the tyranny of who shows up. "Direct democracy" is basically Bolshevism, some with power and determination taking over. Stalin took the minutes in the Politburo meetings -- that was how he could come to power, controlling the mind and record of the group.
In Second Life, there have been experiments with 5,000 or 8,000 in a real-time group chat, and many long-running groups like the Thinkers (and for a time, The Doers) where hundreds of people get online and try to discuss philosophical issues or solve various problems to make a better world. There are also experiments in online voting over various issues, attracting constantly rolling issues with 3,000 or 5,000 votes on the software and its features. With some notable exceptions, all of these experiments generally fail and devolve to a few sectarians running everything.
The question of which technology to use to convene the collaboration isn't trivial. Many had hopes for Google Plus. Aside from the fact that only 15 people fit on the video chat -- by contrast 150 or so can meet in Second Life on 4-corner sims -- Google, like Facebook, has developed "influencers" and gurus with large followers who use the carefully-crafted tools to block or mute people whose views they don't like, or separate out certain conversations to inner circles without transparency, so it is not a liberal democratic tool.
Facebook has solved some of these problems by allowing people to enter a cause at the level only of a "like" without having to commit or talk or do -- and that's important, because any social movement has to have tolerance for different levels of activism. Anne-Marie Slaughter sounds like she wants everyone to be engaged and committed in the group with the same purpose and adjust all their personal notions to some grander scheme -- but experience shows us that this always ends up being set by "the core," and they always end up being "the tyranny of who shows up" *and that's why representative democracy and parliamentary democracy are better*.
9. Slaughter doesn't say that she wants collaborative power to replace nation-states and representative-democracy. Of course many of her Twitter followers in the Gov 2.0 movement very much want to replace those institutions with...themselves, the "goverati" as they call themselves. Open government means running "the stacks" -- the different technical tasks of society -- with various experts who collaborate on line -- the opposite of the Ron Paul or Rick Perry vision, with more and more government agencies formed with those smart, collaborative people in them, forward-thinking and progressive, of course, who hook in their friends in universities, think-tanks and NGOs, as well as some foreign countries, and then do what they like.
Pro-tip -- be sure, as you go at government with these collectivist ideas, like Beth Noveck did when she became deputy of the Office on Science and Technology in the White House, to *turn off the comments in the forums*. If you turn on the comments, too many people dissent, or raise their special issues (legalize marijuana, birthers). Too noisy! Too many! Make sure that only some of your insiders learn about bills or projects you are drafting *first* -- then let the masses know about it when it's only days before the deadline. Otherwise, it's a mess, you know!
10. Finally, there's a fictional notion built into Slaughter's theory that you can see contained in her next paragraph:
Relational power is held by an individual, group, or institution in relation to, as the name suggests, another individual, group, or institution. Collaborative power, on the other hand, is not held by any one person or in any one place. It is an emergent phenomenon -- the property of a complex set of interconnections. Leaders can learn to unlock it and guide it, but they do not possess it.
Oh, I'm hardly surprised to hear Silicon Valley's game-god theory of "emergent behaviour" to appear here -- it filtered out of World of Warcraft and Second Life to Twitter -- and not only from there. The emergent behaviour notion tends to bless anything that occurs because it occurs. This fictional notion has a great hold on some minds, and they bless certain things they believe are occuring in a group or network as almost God or the Spirit. In fact, it would be better if they used those religious terms because then you could decide whether to believe and be baptised -- or not.
The notion of the "no place" of this "emergent power" is also a function of the various Internet ideologies like "Connectivism" which says "all knowledge is on the network" and doesn't reside in any one human brain, as he is merely a socialized creature who is only the sum of his Personal Learning System -- etc.
There's no shortage of these kinds of New Age faddish ideologies on the West Coast and the Wired State coming into beind. Go on TED and you can find hundreds of videos that will give you various flavours of these new beliefs -- networked is best, the individual is dead or irrelevant or non-existence. In fact, they are the worst kinds of totalitarian collectivism, only dressed up in cyber-clothing.
The ideas that Anne-Marie is spouting come from various versions of the California Ideology and cults in Silicon Valley. That's why she is able to say this:
Many terrific thinkers in fields from computer science to business management and entrepreneurship to neurobiology and complexity theory are working on similar ideas. Through my Twitter feed, I have gotten many great links to thoughtful posts and articles making similar points to those above. It's time we apply these concepts and insights to foreign policy, both analyzing what we see and prescribing policy options -- much as the informal #FreeMona team did during Mona Eltahawy's detention in Cairo.
"Neural networks," for example, is one particular faddish idea that tries to take fictional accounts of neurobiology and apply them to group systems and human control.
When I used to see these Silicon Valley ideologies at play in Second Life and other virtual worlds and the early days of Twitter and other networks, I would think that they couldn't possibly bleed into actual real life and government. When I first heard Beth Noveck's notions of the diminuition of the individual and the privileging of the collaborative group (with a controlled core, i.e. collectivism in disguise), I was actively worried, as it was really not democracy. When I saw her make the trajectory from a Second Life simulator to the White House, I was astounded.
To hear Anne-Marie Slaughter, recently from the State Department and still with friends there, actively proposing this kind of dissolving of the individual into the "collaborative project" with its uncontrolled "emergent behaviour" is also very disconcerting. I think she has no idea how there are always cunning and manipulative types to show up and run the "emergent behaviour."
No idea at all.