Naming the movement

The early 21st century is marked by a profusion of initiatives that bring people together to discuss and explore big questions. It amounts to a great river of change - but to realise its potential the movement needs a formal designation, says Keith Kahn-Harris.
Keith Kahn-Harris
22 June 2011

A spectre is haunting the early 21st-century western world, the spectre of a movement that (as yet) has no name. This movement is building among and between a swathe of projects, startups and institutions; in the work of a host of intellectuals, educators and social entrepreneurs. It is a movement that has the potential to radically transform community and education in the modern world. Yet it is a movement that, for the most part, is not (as yet) conscious that it is a movement.

The movement is born out of a sense of frustration (explicit or implicit by turn) with the tendency of the contemporary world to fragment communities, to make education into a purely instrumental exercise, to accord everything a measurable price. In a time of rapid change, of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity”, the bonds connecting us all are ever more frayed, the collectivities within which we can find a home ever more insubstantial. In an apparent paradox, we are ever more interconnected in a globalised world tightly enmeshed in digital-communications networks; at the same time we struggle to find “thick” forms of connection and deep engagement with the other.

The old ways of bringing people together still exist: families, trade unions, work or study colleagues, religious communities, social clubs, pubs, sport. Many even appear to be thriving. Yet too often venerable institutions cannot keep up with the pace of change; and may respond, as in some forms of fundamentalist religion, by reconstituting themselves out of solipsism and fear as a bulwark against change.

Moreover, those spaces that could have provided a particular haven for community and deep communication have tended to become more and more “colonised” (in rgen Habermas’s term) by the market and by instrumental, managerialist thinking. The possibilities for education as a process of transformation and engagement, for example, are threatened by bureaucracy, creeping privatisation and a target-driven culture in universities and schools.

The seeds

The movement in process of being born is in great part emerging in response to these developments. It is facilitated by new technology (though not enslaved by it), and seeks to rethink community and education for a new century. At the roots of the process is the shared experience of a period of extraordinary creativity and vitality, one in which people around the world rise to the challenge of reclaiming the “lifeworld” (Habermas again) that makes us human. Members of the movement may not (like the character of Neo in the film The Matrix) be able to articulate what it is that drives them on - but they know that something is wrong with the world and that only by a great effort will it be possible to put it right by making the world anew.

So what is this movement? No one institution or individual embodies it. It is rather a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get stuck into fixed patterns of thought.

The following are some examples where the movement can be found:

* Events and formats through which ideas can be communicated in inspirational ways: TED, TEDx, Ignite, Pecha Kucha, Intelligence Squared

* Festivals that mix play, learning, celebration and connection: Hay, SXSW, Burning Man

* Co-working spaces and innovation hubs: the Hub, Jelly

* Networks for social entrepreneurs and opinion formers: Editorial intelligence, the RSA

* Meet-ups for people working in specific fields: the Tuttle Club, Everything Unplugged

* New adult educational institutions: the School of Life, School of Everything, Idler Academy

* Community education projects and festivals: Limmud, Greenbelt

* Dialogue and conversation projects: the Oxford Muse, the Dialogue Project

* Retreats and conferences: the Salzburg Seminars, Skyros

* Artists, musicians and writers that strive to find new modes of production and consumption: Cory Doctorow, Brian Eno.

Many of these initiatives did not exist even in 2000, and those that did have been transformed and revitalised by new technology. Some are well-known and popular, others are confined to particular niches. New projects and institutions of this kind are emerging all the time, even during the current recession, suggesting a deep hunger and an as yet unquenched thirst.

What makes these phenomena, alongside many others, a movement is that they derive from a common set of (albeit often inchoate) desires: for knowledge, for connection, for empowerment, for stimulation - and from a common sense of possibility. The movement has not been built by a common institutional framework, manifesto or policy. It is a chaotic movement, built through thousands of dedicated individuals working in parallel to each other. Although profit-making institutions and well-established organisations have played a part, the spread of the movement does not depend on them. The movement is, above all, an organic one.

The search

The movement is thriving and growing without any central direction. It has come so far in so short a time that it is tempting to leave it there to go its own enriching way. Yet my suggestion here that one additional thing would bring considerable benefits: naming the movement. The reason to give it a name is not to “fix” it or to pin it down, but to begin a process by which the movement will become self-conscious. This in turn will increase its robustness, its resilience, its influence, its power to transform. Movements can be fragile, subject to whims and changes in fashion. The critique of the present and the vision of the future represented by this movement is too important for it to suffer this kind of fate.

Naming the movement is the start of a process through which a more self-conscious movement asks itself the difficult questions and sets itself the difficult challenges that can so easily be avoided. Here are five challenges and questions that might form a starting-point:

1. How can those involved in the diverse range of projects that constitute the movement link up and share expertise? What kind of structures could enable this without smothering the creative chaos of the movement?

2. How can the movement become more than simply a way of playing at the edges of modernity? In other words, how can it transform the way the world works?

3. How far is the movement confined to a particular section of the western middle classes? How can it spread to non-western contexts and to what used to be called the working class?

4. How can the movement be named without confining it and slowing it down?

5. How can the movement be named without creating exclusive boundaries between “us” and “them”?

The search for a name for the movement is just the start. By finding it, we open up a space in which profound questions about social transformation can be asked. A process that began in a flurry of startups and blogs may end in a different kind of world. The spectre of the movement must be recognised for what it is - as the spectre of change.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData