Varoufakis’ DiEM25 and the politics of the self(ie)

Last week I entered the Acquario Romano, a historic gorgeous building in the surroundings of the main train station in Rome, eager to breath some fresh air in the lately very depressing hallways of politics.

Yannis Varoufakis was there to launch his newborn movement, DiEM25: an ambitious name that stands for “Democracy in Europe Movement” while the 25 sets in the year 2025  the deadline for the dream to come true. Young activists in their thirties had gathered there from all across Italy to meet the former Greek minister of Finance and volunteer to make the movement come to life. I heard a group of Danish young professionals telling their Italian peers how they would book a cheap airline flight and AirB&B a few nights in Rome just to be there and help out. I saw the familiar faces of long time activists and political theorists Toni Negri and Franco Berardi BIFO standing  next to an energetic and casually dressed Varoufakis, ready to speak to the crowds about this Europe of us, that “will either be democratized or it will disintegrate”, as the movement motto states.

The gorgeous hall of the building was full of energy and great expectations when, to my greatest disappointment, Varoufakis – who professes to be a marxist – clarifies that DiEM25 is not a left-wing movement, but a movement that aims at reaching out to the entire political spectrum, including liberals, right-wing: literally anyone. Being a long time leftist activist I have to confess that I shivered once heard the sentence. Dear Varoufakis, you such a brilliant, cultivated man, the former hope of European left-wing movements who celebrated you when you walked out the bankers’ meeting on your motorbike: now that you can choose your own path, start your own movement, you, despite professing to be a marxist, decide that anyone should be included in it?

Feeling very uncomfortable I ask myself:  does democratizing ultimately mean including everyone into something? Does the erasing of legitimate political differences and identities naturally imply to be democratic? I am horrified by this idea of one-size-fits-all democracy which, in my view, turns into a populistic version of a “DemoCrazy” instead.


Yet, being a very curious – and, generally, optimistic – person and a patient ethnographer, I decide to stay, regardless of my poor little leftist self being very frustrated by the idea of the one-size-fits-all DemoCrazy circulating around the gorgeous building. So, when the plenary assembly with Varoufakis is over and it’s time for splitting into smaller groups to discuss crucial issues for the future of Europe with fellow activists peers, I sit with the “democracy” group. The group has a 30 something people, sitting in a circle, and is moderated by a young blu-eyed guy who speaks in English, being the crowd a truly European crowd. Somebody sitting in the middle of the circle holds a huge piece of white paper and, with a red marker, writes some key words on it.

“How will democracy look like in 2025”, that’s the main question that the group needs to answer to: a creative, imaginative effort whose results will be translated into key words to be written on the poster, which will be later hung on the walls for public contemplation.

“Imagine yourself in ten years from now” is a familiar question to anyone who has sat, at least once in a lifetime, in a job interview with an American employer. After working for five years for a Silicon-Valley based organization the white piece of paper , with colored sticky notes progressively mushrooming on it as everybody at the table engaged in the imaginative effort, was also a familiar scenario. I might sound quite an old-fashioned leftist activist, but I don’t see anything particularly European or particularly democratic in the sticky notes; and not even in the one-minute imaginative effort of seeing yourself – together with democracy–  projected in a ten years time. I understand that this might be an ice-breaker for a crowd who has just met; I understand that there is a time issue when five or more round table discussions have to wrap up and present their “results” in a plenary.

Yet I question the form as it hints to a very specific substance: the mere idea that democracy should be debated in a sort of “unconference” format which would give it enough coolness, openness, and horizontality not to be considered a topic heavy to digest. Is the precarious flexibility of the sticky notes; the time-sensitive creativity of key words; the coolness of geek formats à la Silicon-Valley a good answer to our thirst for democracy?

Cause there is, indeed, a craving for a more fair, democratic politics: and that’s why Varoufakis’ meeting was crowded and filled with hopes. But also with disappointment, as I heard a young man with a southern Italian accent saying in the plenary: “this seems like a business meeting rather than a gathering to start a new political movement”. Which completely resonates with my own frustration, after having heard words such as: self-empowerment, initiative, enterprise, sustainability, pitching. Can we get rid of neoliberalism at least in the words we use to imagine politics? Or is it so dramatically enmeshed into our daily jargon that we don’t even notice that discussing politics has become like talking about the stock market, or trying to impress your future boss in the most awesome job interview?

The answer to my unspoken question comes from a woman, a young volunteer who reacts to the remark made by the southern Italian man. “What do you mean? There is no such a thing as a political movement here. We gave you input: now you have to build the movement by yourself. Nothing is ready-made here”. She has been honest, at least: input was the right word, a perfect word for a neoliberal vocabulary. Input gives the right measure of time, when there is no time for discussion.

“We are here to launch the movement”, people say; which is totally coherent with the Twitter mantra: write first, verify later. Launch first, discuss later, as there is no time to discuss something that will be anyway measured later by the likes and shares of the social media universe.

Varoufakis’ performance will be also assessed not as a political performance but rather as an aesthetic one. No need to bother Rancière to grasp the political implications of those aesthetic experiences named “selfies” that I see blossoming on my Facebook wall portraying Varoufakis and Anna, Varoufakis and Emma, Varoufakis and Francesca.

The experience of arousal is aestheticized through those young female faces smiling with their object of desire. Varoufakis has been fetishized by this politics of the selfie, and he seems to have learned the lesson so well.

No collective identities are moved by the politics of the self(ie); just individual bodies in desperate need of personal experiences of temporary arousal.

If we want to counteract neoliberal politics, rising racism, xenophobia, extremism, austerity, sadness, financial and human depression, we badly need a politics of the orgy, a collective arousal of bodies and souls. And orgy has always been a much more satisfying way to reach pleasure than a lonely masturbatory selfi(e)sh act.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime (Part Two)

PR groups like the D.C. based Capital Communications were in talks with the Syrian government few months before the uprising. The group chair, Akram Elias, offers Shaaban an “action plan that covers in depth the subject matter” discussed in a previous meeting. The email does not specify the topic of the conversation, but Capital Communications skills serve areas like “crisis communications and reputation management” and offer services as“how to pitch a story to the US media” for those who want to shape “effective messages”. Among its clients, the group counts many foreign governments as that of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and also Russia. Other groups that focus more on bridging the government and the private sector have tried to set their operations in Syria. N.Y. based Global Leadership Team  attempted –unsuccessfully, it seems from the email correspondence – to reach out to the presidential palace in order to host world summits on innovation and capitalism in Syria and to award first lady Asma al-Assad among “the most innovative people” in the world.

 People like Shaaban and the presidential palace`s inner circle of seemingly reform-minded folks –English-speaking, Western-educated elites that know how to impression the West by employing words as “empowerment” and “entrepreneurship” which make up the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism– have been able to seduce organizations that lie at the extreme sides of the ideological spectrum, like the World Economic Forum and Viva Palestina!.

Former British Labour Party MP George Galloway, who co-founded the latter to bring humanitarian aides and relief to Gaza`s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack, is a well known leftist activist. His involvement in the Palestinian cause has matched with Assad`s rhetoric of Syria being “the last Arab country” committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. Dubbing Assad`s Syria as the “last castle of Arab dignity” is as enormous as when he cheered Saddam Hussen with “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability” .Later, Galloway declared to have been misunderstood, as those words were addressed to the Iraqi people, not to the dictator; he might have been caught in the same kind of misunderstanding concerning Syria.

 The charm that Assad`s Syria has exercised on both world`s capitalists and leftist activists relies on an enmeshed network of privileges, personal favors, mutual benefits and exchanges, mixed with what is left of old fashioned anti imperialist ideology. Here, the seemingly-opposites coincide. This clever mix of neoliberalism and anti-imperialism rhetoric is cultivated by the presidential palace and pushed forward in the public space of media by its unofficial spokespersons. Deemed respectable and enlightened by Western media, companies, governments “these people speak the same language we do” –as a Western diplomat once told me–. The editor in chief of the Syrian Forward magazine, Sami Moubayed, is one of them. His articles on the Syrian uprising give a sense of his skills in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the palace`s seemingly reformist project. This might be the reason why Moubayed is able to appeal an edgy US publication as the Huffington Post; as much as he is able to get invited to dinner by Turkish ambassador in Syria and be hinted as the person who should write “to express the Syrian position” on Turkish press.

Last spring, Moubayed had proposed the palace to “solve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way” and push forward a “third view”  between the official regime position and the people`s. This project — the TV series “Fawq al-saqf” (Above the ceiling)— failed dramatically, as it never reached audience success and was stopped after its 15th episode in Ramadan 2011 . The same seems to happen now to these West-appealing elites sitting at the palace, whose reform-minded project is proving to be just a media project, not even a well marketed one anymore.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime

Hundreds of emails flooded from some 78 inboxes of Syrian presidential palace`s aides and media advisors last Monday, after an attack led by Anonymous – apparently the accounts` passwords just lacked security (and imagination) as their protection was simply“12345”--.

The most controversial leaked email was sent by a press attache at the Syrian mission to the United Nation, Sheherazad Jaafari –who happens to be the the daughter of the current Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari— The email is addressed to Luna Chebel, former host of the Al Jazeera Arabic show “Lil-nisa`faqat” (For women only), who left the Doha-based channel on May 2010 over a dress-code dispute with its management and went to work as al-Assad`s media aide at the Palace.

Jaafari advised the Palace`s aide on how to handle the interview between Bashar al-Assad and ABC`s American journalist Barbara Walters. This is the interview where we saw on screen the Syrian president declaring: “We don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”. While, at the time, many thought that Assad was in a clear state of denial concerning the bloody crackdown, he was actually just following Jaafari`s advice to win over an “American Psyche (that) can be easily manipulated”.

 “Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” the Syrian President told Walters in the ABC interview. Here, his emphasis on the difference “between having a policy to crackdown and having some mistakes committed by some officials” echoes his media aides` suggestion to stress on “mistakes” that “have been done in the beginning of the crisis because we did not have a well-organized “police force”. Americans can be convinced if they here that “there are ‘mistakes’ done” but these are going to be fixed, suggests the planning email.

Jaafari also reminds the president`s aide to have him stressing that Facebook and YouTube were not censored during the crisis –in fact they have been banned for years and their legal use was restored only in February 2011, just one month before the beginning of the Syrian uprising — and that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had offices in Damascus at the time when the unrest started –in fact they were operating under the Ministry of Information`s strict surveillance and independent filming was never permitted, even long time before 15th March—.

While this interview planning email can draw a clear picture of what (some) Syrians think about (some) Americans, indeed this is not the most interesting part of the Anonymous` leaks. Much more comes out when looking at the emails  written and received by Bashar al- Assad`s media and political advisor Butheina Shaaban, a prominent member of the seemingly reform-minded Syrian president`s inner circle. Going through her correspondence helps exploring the symbolic and material appeal that Assad`s regime`s was exercising over journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, leftists activists and even an eccentric millionaire, Bobby Sager.

Sager –who served as an inspiration for NBC`s show The Philanthropist– has spent a significant amount of time “traveling the world” and “he`s pals with Sting, hobnobs with Lady Gaga”. But his friendship with these top music industry folks has probably not moved him as much as the time spent with Syrian English-speaking elites and President al-Assad himself. These days together have apparently secured him an unprecedented insight on Syria and a “first hand perspective” thanks to his visits to the “Ummayyad mosque, the souk, the coffee shops and even the hammam”.

The uncontested beauty of places which would strike a foreign student or a tourist in his first day visit to Damascus has actually helped Bobby to uncover details of the country that “the distorting filters of the media or the haze of distance” had kept secret before.

 But it`s not only this updated nuance of Orientalism that shapes the comfortable relationship binding Western (especially US-based) elites to Syrian regime officials. There are, of course, material privileges coming out from such a link: a bill of 150.000 USD per month, for example, would be the price to “improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation..”. Surprisingly enough, this email does not come from a PR firm, but from a University Professor who probably does act as an intermediary in this sort of transactions. David W, Lesch, from the Department of History at Trinity University in Sant`Antonio US, far from being an ordinary scholar with a prominent interest in Syrian issues, is somebody who “has also met on a regular basis since 2004 with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and consulted with Bush and Obama administration officials on an on-going basis in high-level attempts to improve US-Syrian relations”. His official biography adds that “Dr. Lesch was also president of Middle East International Business Associates, Inc., a consulting company that facilitated business opportunities in the Middle East for American companies–among his clients were a number of Fortune 500 corporations”. 


(part one-to be continued)

Waiting for the #15oct in Rome…

Today was a very (in)tense day in Rome. I first left my place to go to Teatro Valle Occupato, a wonderful ancient theater in Rome which has been occupied by actors, intellectuals, creative crews for more than 4 months now.

Since last June, each single day has been filled up by artistic performances, theater plays, video screenings, political debates, all public and all for free. It is a wonderful experience of civic participation in the actual making of culture, which has registered an incredible amount of consensus among citizens. Valle Occupato not only hosts performances but also daily training seminars for free. They are all the result of volunteer work done by professionals and amateurs working in media, culture, creativity.

Today I was hosting a workshop on social media and the use of web 2.0 tools to produce original content, spread information, participate directly in political life.

Not only there was a great audience attending the workshop, but at the same time I had a great example to test instant live tools. #OccupiamoBankItalia is the #OccupyWallStreet kind of protest that has just spread into Italy, particularly in Rome. Activists have taken the control of the very central location of Palazzo delle Esposizioni staircase, in the hearth of Rome, and very close to the Central Bank and to many Ministries.

They have spent the night there yesterday, creating an “indignados” style  of camp, and they are ready to do the same tonight and tomorrow, in preparation of the #15oct protests that have been planned all across Europe for next saturday.

We tried to move our social media training there, at the very hearth of the protests, but many people preferred to stay inside the theater, in order to test the tools and learn how to use them (some of them even find Twitter difficult and too complicate to use). But once the course was over, I went at Palazzo delle Esposizioni and found a very lively situation, a public assembly made by citizens discussing the over-control of banks and global finance over people`s life and the effects of global crisis on basic human and workers` rights.

our course on social media

the dragon of global finance

the dragon of global finance tries to leave Palazzo delle Esposizioni…

When the assembly was over, people suggested to create a march headed by the “dragon of global finance”. The idea was to have people walking on the sidewalks and never on the actual streets, in order not to prevent the normal flow of traffic to happen. The activists would have had just to march on the sidewalks, following the “dragon”, distributing posters and talking to the random people they would have jumped into about the reason of the protest.

So, a very “civilized” way to protest and manifest dissent. But, of course, even in an alleged “democratic” country like Italy, doing such a thing in the very center of the city becomes problematic. The dragon has tried many times to walk on Via Nazionale sidewalks, on every single side surrounding Palazzo delle Esposizioni, but the response of police has been a clear “no”.

People have been trying and trying, always in a pacific way, to walk and go up and down in Via Nazionale but the response of the police till now has been a “no”.

A concert and many other activities are planned for tonight to happen in front of Palazzo delle Esposizioni and activitsts have started to camp there, determined to stay overnight. Police will stay too, and we`ll see what happens.

In any case, this is the first time since many years ago that we have been witnessing such a global connected protest to happen in Italy (maybe since the horrible crackdown of Genova 2001) and this is only the beginning. More planned for #15oct. Stay tuned.

The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

picture by Evanchill

Yesterday Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, wrote an interesting piece: “At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn`t the West?”.

“Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality. Quantcast U.S. and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center – that is shaping the future of the region” Khanfar says.

I cannot but agree with him. Few days ago, in my post “Tripoli, una gita di mille anni fa” (in Italian), I was discussing the same issue, the blindness of the West, particularly Europe and my own country, Italy (which enjoyed in the past a great deal of soft power in the Region and a cultural proximity with Arabs that maybe only Spain and Greece have among EU countries). We had a great opportunity which was the Euro-Mediterreanean framework and we wasted it, doing partnerships with the wrong people, “supporters of the Arab regimes” as Wadah cleverly points out. We saw the rising influence of social networks and some of us, mostly academic researchers with no real influence on institutional policies, spent years and years trying to convince EU institutions that those were the right folks to discuss with, the young blood of the new Arab generation. But sine we are ourselves “too young” (at least for EU parameters) nobody paid too much attention to our words, taking us as “kids” playing with the latest technology tool.

The same happened much longer before with TV stations. I remember when I first visited Al Jazeera, back in 2000, and then started to write articles and a book about the channel. It took years and years of work and public talks to have the EU elites starting to take this station “seriously” and not being just scared by it.

Today, 10 years  after 9/11, the situation has completely changed. Al Jazeera has been in touch with “the street” as Wadah points out, and was able to catch up with the changing going on in the Region. Al Jazeera is a young station. Khanfar himself is young and was able to build up a team of youngsters in the New Media Department that is super-professional. People like Mohamed Nanahbay and Mooed Ahmad, with their teams at Al Jazeera Arabic and English, have been working since 2006 to build what Al Jazeera achieves today.

We can criticize the channel`s editorial policy, disagree with some of its programmes, dislike its “incendiary” style, but we cannot deny the professional way the channel has been building relations with the people during the years. That`s it: Al Jazeera has not dealt with Arabs as audiences, but as its “people”. It has empowered them to express their opinions, send their messages, join online forum and chats, post videos, build the new brand identity of the channel all together.

People, mostly in the West, are surprised of the channel popular success during the last Egyptian uprising and now with Libya. There`s nothing to be surprised about pictures like the one Evanchill has published. People feel proximity with Al Jazeera, and new media has played a big role in this. And the way Al Jazeera has been using new media since 2006 is incredibly clever and professional. I wouldt be surprised at all: I would call this “investment”.

Al Jazeera has invested in new media since 2006 and this success is just the result of a professional work done during years and years. As much as 9/11 coverage in Afghanistan was the result of an investment done since the beginning of the channel, in 1996, by building a network of contacts and opening offices in crisis zones.

9/11 coverage didnt come out of the blue. It was just the result of an investment.

The idea of “investing” in something was once very close to Western mentality. It seems that now, mostly in the EU, this is gone. And none of the Arabic language stations that we have in Europe has ever thought of building a relation with its Arab audiences and dealing with them as people, not as numbers.

Al Jazeera did, and that`s the secret of its successful coverage of the Arab uprisings. It did it so well that this was helpful to reach out to Western audiences too.

There was -and there still is- a big campaign in the US, appeared also on Twitter and called #DemandAlJazeera. The channel New media team is organizing meet-ups all over America, and many articles are  being published everywhere in the US to demand the availability of the channel via cable.

And this might be Al Jazeera`s latest success: few days ago it was publicly announced that the channel is in talks with Comcast, the largest US cable distributor.