Rebellious Media Conference London 8th/9th October 2011

Rebellious media conference 8th/9th October London

Peace News wanted to celebrate its 75th anniversary by holding a radical media conference. However, unbelievably Radical Media, a corporate advertising company, have trademarked the expression ‘radical media’ and threatened to sue if their name was used. After considering the potential costs the organisers decided on Rebellious Media instead. Says it all, really ..

I went along because Noam Chomsky had agreed to be the keynote speaker and I was interested to hear him speak live. Also the organisers were asking for facilitators for some of the sessions, so I thought I can do that, and signed up for the conference

Noam Chomsky  focused on how radical media could add substance to the Occupy Wall Street and other similar demonstrations. While supporting their demands he highlighted what was missing – for example any mention of the war in Afghanistan or US healthcare problems. He said demonstrators appeared not to be aware that the so called Arab Spring movements did not erupt out of nowhere, that they came out of years of organisation by militant, active labour movements. Without denigrating the Occupation movement, Chomsky made the point that radical media could fill the gaps, instilling consciousness and promoting understanding amongst the activists as well as the general public.

But it was towards the end of his speech that my ears pricked up when I heard him saying that radical media should be promoting worker takeovers – that it was clearly a better idea for both owners and workforce if the workers take over a factory rather than see it closed down. So when the roving mike was nearby I took advantage and asked Chomsky if he thought the co-operative business model could succeed where the capitalist one has evidently failed. His reply was interesting. He said it depends on the type of co-operative – and mentioned Mondragon, where the MCC owns overseas subsidiaries in which employees are not invited to become members of the co-operative. He then passed the question to another speaker, the well known activist, economist, speaker, and writer Mike Albert More of him later.

For now, what he said had me with my head in my hands. He spoke of visiting an Argentinian factory, occupied by its workers during the economic crash of the 80s, where during an interview that began with an initial optimistic gloss over the situation, people got gloomier and gloomier as they spoke with one worker eventually in tears as she confessed that things were ‘just the same as before’ and that perhaps Margaret Thatcher was right, that ‘there is no alternative’. Mike Albert went on to talk about the importance of the organisational structure of the co-operative – that unless it truly engages everyone in ownership and control, based on a collective and participative approach, then it would merely mimic the alienating conditions of work found in the regular business model. I was initially disturbed that someone of Albert’s reputation and credibility should speak in a negative way about co-operatives before such an enormous audience – over 900 activists. However afterwards I thought that it was a good thing – that we shouldn’t be repeating fairy stories to each other about how co-operatives are always radical, always a challenge to the status quo. I know that’s why I am interested in them, but it’s clear they are not always a force for good, and it does depend on how people work within them, and whether or not they consciously use the structure as a challenge to ‘business as usual’. Mike Albert’s contribution reminded me of a time in my early days of working in co-operative development – of how much more useful it felt to be earning a living promoting an alternative approach to business and to organising work, instead of working weekdays making money for someone else, with only the evenings and weekends left for campaigning against nuclear weapons or raising feminist consciousness or for trade union solidarity.

Michael Albert has written extensively on what he calls ‘Participatory Economics’ or ‘Parecon’ (not a good name IMHO). Wikipedia describes it as an economic system using ‘participatory decision making as an economic mechanism to guide the production, consumption and allocation of resources in a given society. Proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalist market economies and also an alternative to centrally planned socialism, it is described as “an anarchistic economic vision”, and it could be considered a form of socialism as under parecon, the means of production are owned by the workers. The underlying values that parecon seeks to implement are equity, solidarity, diversity, workers’ self-management and efficiency’. Sounds a bit like a co-operative approach doesn’t it?

Here’s Michael Albert on participatory economics

Apart from picking up a lot of useful tips in a workshop on exploiting social media for activism, run by Chris Smith of Ecotube the other topic that I found very energising and useful was Ruth Potts’ workshop on how we might change the way economics and business is reported in the media. Ruth spoke about how economics and business journalists view the world through such distorting lenses that they actually limit the questions that can be asked of business and government. She asked how we can wrest media attention away from their uncritical obsession with growth. Ruth pointed out that the current moment offers great opportunities since there is a growing sense of cognitive dissonance – it’s evident to anyone who’s half awake that there is a problem with an economics based on the assumption that growth is good! That resources are finite, that some are about to be exhausted, that market mechanisms are fallible and that someone needs to point out sooner rather than later that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes!

Ruth Potts workshop, which I helped facilitate, was run on an Open Space model. From what I have gathered, this approach is similar to a co-operative forum approach, with the exception that – apart from not having designated start and end times (we were restricted to an hour and a half), participants can choose to be ‘butterflies’ [flitting from group to group settling where they fancy; or ‘bees’ [deliberately choosing to leave one group and join another for cross pollination of ideas]. Also the Open Space approach does not impose ideas for debate, the whole group comes up with those at the start. We clearly didn’t have time for that, and although we encouraged people to be butterflies and bees, possibly because the room was so packed, they chose mostly to sit where they started.

The groups came up with some wonderful suggestions, including ‘Adopt a Journalist’ whereby a group of radical activists would identify a mainstream journalist, ideally somebody already questioning the status quo, and feed them with alternative views, evidence, statistics. Another idea was to publicise the environmental costs alongside the financial results of a particular company, while another group reminded us that we can all buy a share in a company, attend the AGM and ask those difficult questions that the regular shareholders aren’t aware need asking, or feel that it’s ‘not done’.

This was another of Chomsky’s themes – that our society doesn’t need censors – we censor ourselves – we know what’s ‘not done’. Our education instils in us an internal censor we are hardly aware of, which stops us saying or doing things which are critical of our society because it’s just ‘not done’. An excellent thought to carry away with us as we emerged blinking into the daylight of Sunday afternoon Euston Road, on our way back home. Out to play. Back to work.

You can join in the ongoing discussions and/or buy a DVD of the conference.