Saturday, 3 November 2007

Coming into the world

Political books often come into the world a bit too full of themselves. They come over as definitive statements when really they are most useful as work in progress, a long-winded contribution (maybe necessarily so) to a continuing debate.

Also their means of production can be a little romanticised. Look at the acknowledgements in most political books and you can see that rarely has it been the product only of lonely toil in a writer’s attic (though speaking for myself I yearn for a few months alone – well, more or less – in a cosy attic with an inspiring view. Anyone got an empty attic in the Lake District?)

Blogging, web forums and other techie tools could come in handy here and open up the culture of political book writing, possibly also making the books themselves more useful.

These web tools open up the possibility of connecting with strangers who might have arrived at similar questions by other routes, from different traditions and cultures. Blogging or being part of forums or e-lists (very selectively) in the build up to writing a book takes away the pressure of imagining you are embarking on some definitive tome; it brings alive the sense of contributing to a wider and visibly active debate. It cuts both your author’s ego and anxiety down to size.
These new tools have the potential to increase the political impact of books too, through increasing the possibility of drawing on, spreading and synthesising diverse but connected experiences. This can turn books into handy tools for organising, building common values, understandings and a shared sense of purpose.

My first prize for ‘Books with Impact’ goes to Reclaiming Public Water, produced by the Transational Institute/Corporate Europe Observatory. Through this book, activists internationally have documented and analysed their own struggles to reclaim public water from the privatisers. Within just two years, the book had been translated into 13 languages – Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, three Indian languages …

Each time the book is translated those responsible have added stories and lessons from their own country and new movements are drawn into the network. Producing the book has made it a shared learning tool and a means for organising and extending the pressure for water to be recognised as a common good. Very impressive. And web debates and communications have been crucial to the process.

So, under instructions from Red Pepper’s fearsome web editors to do my blogging duty, I thought I’d use my blog to encourage contributions and feedback for a search and a book that is already part of an international collaboration. It’s on a theme on which many Red Pepper readers are already working in practice and theory. We sum up the overall collaboration as: ‘Networked politics; rethinking political organisation in an era of networks and movements’. There is already an extensive email list and website ( providing shared resources, including a growing e-library.

With several others in this project I’m beginning to focus on a book around this theme. Its part of my day job with the New Politics Programme of the Transnational Institute. Since one of the purposes of Red Pepper has always been precisely to be a tool for rethinking political organisation at a time when social movements are providing the most significant sources of innovation for social change (including in response to problems and setbacks – it’s not all plain sailing), it makes sense to make this blog a diary of work in progress on a theme of common interest.

My first recommendation from the last day or so’s reading is Challenges for Respect by Salma Yaqoob, Respect vice chair. As well as raising serious questions about the whole Respect project and the role of the SWP leadership within it, Salma also provides a glimpse of a very different kind of political organisation from anything we have known in the UK. (You can read George Galloway’s letter to the Respect national council here.)

In the next issue of Red Pepper, we’ll carry a full analysis of the debates and prospects for Respect. Meanwhile, down in Bournemouth this week, the last juices of democratic debate are being squeezed out of the Labour Party. Consequently the issue of political representation to the left of Labour – and the constitutional changes necessary to achieve it on a significant scale – must surely become an issue for us all.

No comments: