Chantal Mouffe and my game

Someone suggested my thoughts align with Chantal Mouffe and so I went down a rabbithole. Part of that, and critical thinking, is also seeing what critique exists and this quickly developed into a quagmire of who exactly has the right ideas. So I’m being a bit fast and loose here, and using the general ideas as a description of what the game is hoping to help with.

This video (17 minutes) gives an overview of what the challenge is, how it happened. Listen with subtitles on (or just skip it, I made notes below) because bliksem, French Belgians are something else. Anyway.

I’m not actually sure if leftist populism or an ” internationalist leftist populist front” is a good thing, but the question the interviewer asks I can relate to:

Problem statement

5:38 So you say possibly quite rightly that the way that left populism is developing is context dependent, it’s different in different countries. But to resist neoliberalism which is a global phenomenon which may articulate itself differently in different countries but still operates in a global way, how do we intercept the different ways in which left populism develops and articulates itself between countries to create an internationalist leftist populist front?

As an aside, Naomi Klein defines the challenge of neoliberalism as this, on page 116 in her book Doppelganger:

The idea that we should think and function as communities of enmeshed bodies with different needs and vulnerabilities flies in the face of a core message of neoliberal capitalism: that you are on your own and deserve your lot in life, for better or worse.

and then this makes me think, and feel a bit sorry for, the libertarians, who see the same failures of government, but somehow don’t get to the obvious conclusion that we’re all connected, and so would rather go to enclaves like Liberland or crypto. On the other hand it’s encouraging to me that their core concerns seem to be the same, and this is why I feel sympathetic to the mirror world too. As Klein says, p144 and 145:

Conspiracy culture does not challenge the hyper-individualism that is at the heart of so many crises reaching their breaking points.

Call to action

And then, suddenly, we’re all confronted with a crisis that requires us to act as more than individuals, more than families, more than nations, because we are actually entangled with one another. And that was a shock bigger than Covid [or climate change, or any of the other ones currently raging] itself.

And this is why I want to build the game. But I get ahead of myself. Also, “game” here is a playful way of saying digital democratic participation, and an attempt to improve civic political engagement.

Chantal answers by saying “start at home”, which I agree with. She says national but I feel that is already too fragmented, to captured by neoliberalism. Starting in your street, your neighbourhood, is probably the right scale. But then how does that tiny tiny scale, well, scale? How does that create a real movement?

She then also adds that for example Western Europe and countries with a communist background are incompatible. Sure, but this is just not good enough for me. If I want my African people to be able to share in this movement and get ourselves … bootstrapped… for lack of a better word. We’re going to have to find common cause with better resourced countries. That’s the sortof “internationalist leftist populist front” I think the interviewer hints at.

7:58 Of course obviously there are a series of issues on which for instance it will be very important to establish some kind of international collaboration. My point is that we always need to begin from the concrete situation, and then establishing a reason [for collaboration]. I don’t think it made sense to think of what international strategy could be developed to fight against neoliberality for instance.

This I also agree with, we’re too different. I think this means we need plurality. We need different stories.

 13:58 You can’t put everything on making people the happiest consumer. You also need to create other forms of identity citizenship, so that even in moments in which the economic situation are not so good, people are not going to simply vote in favour or in function of their wallet.

This. I like money, I like being able to buy toys. But a lot of what we need and what we want is not really a function of money, and we need to re-discover that. This is where Vandana Shiva and Dougald Hine comes in. And so how do we do that?

Changing the story

This is a short video, narrated by someone who does not have a French Belgian accent, thank goodness, explaining the work of Laclau and Mouffe. So this is the “why” behind the game.

To remind, the problem statement is, in a word, neoliberalism, that we get exploited and sucked dry and then told this is our fault and we can’t get help. the call to action is to change the story, but the people and mechanisms in power want to keep the story they have, it works for them, obviously.

1:58 ideology provides legitimacy for those in power and so it helps to maintain the status quo

But we as game builders or movement creators cannot say what the story is. We need plurality. At the same time we do force a certain way of engaging, and so the direction of the story, through the framework is that we “allow engagement” so to speak. Many ways of doing this “go woke”, by setting the language and the attention to pronouns and so on. In this game, I simply want to set the framework of curiosity.

Three core contributions of Laclau and Moeffe’s work, and how that relates to this game idea, how I want to tackle this curious creation of stories … and then facilitate acting on them (around 2:35 of the video)

 1. Social change is not deterministic.
If this game is to provide friction, it needs to embrace that we can’t say where the change will end up. I do want to offer alternative approaches a fighting chance to the populism that we see currently. Complicate the narrative.

2. Social change can involve a plurality of actors
This game has to embrace that fundamentally.

3. Social change requires a discourse that enables activists to frame power inequality as oppression 
I’m not sure the game should be explicit about this. It’s not fun. Maybe the game provides a possible world where there is no power inequality, a clean slate, to allow people to dream of alternatives?

3:46 We need to understand why feminist civil rights and environmental movements are successful at some points in time but not in others and we also need to understand reversals of social change and non change.
I want to understand this in the digital era, but I think it has to do with the leaders having a “demanding of rights that is not carried out on the basis of an individualistic problematic.” Like feminism becomes about “white rich cisgender women” and environmentalism becomes about “European vegans” or whatever.

4:15 With increasing social complexity, an antagonism based purely on class (or whatever isolated issue), is not sufficient to mobilise enough citizens to generate social change and hence they propose a more pluralist approach to politics.
THIS. I got tired of having so many fronts to fight on, and this group about fighting gentrification doesn’t talk to that group who fights sexism because they don’t like that other guy, and so we’re all in our little wars and no one gets anywhere. OMG it’s exhausting. I hope that the fun of a game (or open-ended digital platform) and the ethic of curiosity could bring clusters of communities together to take action relevant to their own level, at enough of a game-world imposed distance to dissolve some of those tensions, but with an overarching coherence to actually do a bunch of little things in some sort of direction.

 4:52 Increasing social complexity during and after the Industrial Revolution means that it is the construction of such an antagonism (“the other” or the bad guys) that becomes the crucial problem of politics because there is now such diversity of social groups they can no longer be easily divided in two opposing camps. Hence the challenge for those seeking to achieve social change becomes to find a story that constructs a new antagonism that is capable of mobilising multiple social groups under one umbrella.
But what if we don’t look for one story? What if we allow a plurality of stories? Whatever they are? 

Around 6 minutes the narrator talks about how to shape the story of oppression blah blah. But people have their own little stories. I don’t want people to riot and gather for resistance, and show discontent. I want them to just do stuff. And have the laws accessible to them to know what they’re doing is lawful, to stay accountable. With the internet we can do that. We can do any amount of friction-causing alternatives, at a fractal level; street, neighbourhood, city, nation, globe, from the bottom up. Use the laws that are written, and act on them. For each of the little stories that matter for each of us. I don’t want to reinvent governance, I want to free it to do as it was intended. To enable people to use the laws at grassroots level.

With the advent of social media, as Nanjala Nyabola writes, people are writing their own stories. Yes, influencers influence those stories: Naomi Klein warns about the clout of Steve Bannon. But the traditional idea of stories being the mediator between government and the people is gone. Social change is not about trumpeting a story anymore. I feel like how we govern needs to catch up to that. Well, it is catching up but people like Steve Bannon and Trump and populists who understand marketing is leading the charge. We need alternatives.

 9:01 The plurality of the social is a basic fact in modern industrial societies. This fact implies that social movements that narrowly focus on a single target social group are much less likely to be successful in achieving social change. Social movements that manage to bring together multiple diverse social groups who construct a common story that unites these groups and sets goals for them to achieve collectively that does justice to their internal diversity.

9:32 the fourth hypothesis is to provide viable alternatives
“fight climate change” is not good enough, that is a (9:41) “negative demand”. The alt-right works because they focus on Action! Action! Action! (The correct action is … less important).
The challenge with diverse social groups,and staying accountable, is that their alternatives all need very different things. But at a micro level, deciding on a common thing to bring constructive change on your street might just be doable.

9:58 sketch a concrete imaginary.
well, what else is a game?

Other stuff

10:33 A core principle of democracy is that everyone is equal. It also means that no one has a privilege to claim truth. In other words the left does not have a privileged position or a right to claim that their discursive construction of social reality is more true than alternative discourses.

Now I’m even wondering if we agree that democracy should still be a thing, and how relevant that is in the game mechanics.

10:58 The site of power becomes an empty space.
I think this is what I mean when I want governments to become irrelevant. Yes, rules of law, but radical plurality, enabled by the internet. Maybe that’s one game mechanic to explore, that the game embraces chaos of not having global agreements. (Having said that I want to be in a bubble where raiders don’t come steal my stuff. So this has to be able to be switched off for me to have fun in this game)

11:11 Recognising plurality, and equality in plurality, is essential for democracy to function.

What this means to me is that everyone’s opinion does indeed need to be heard. That following the scientific method or having basic facts (or, the other side, alternative facts) on your side is not good enough to give you power. I think as a world we’re really, really struggling with this, and it doesn’t help that intellectuals and the left think themselves morally superior. So, this game can’t place importance on facts, which is a really strange thing to say for a pervasive, reality-augmented game! The facts, the geospatial environment and the earth observation data and the urban resource flows are simply a common ground. Simply a start, a canvas for a story to unfold. Yes, of course I hope people become leftist or literate in the scientific method or good at critical thinking, but the game cannot be designed for that. And so I want to go back to academia to make sure I don’t put my bias in there. Because a game that is wagging it’s finger at people to “do the right thing” and have preconceptions of what that right thing is, is not going to scale, it’s not fun. It’s just another boring echo chamber.

11:19 In the defence of the interests of the workers, for example not to be made at the expense of the rights of women, immigrants or consumers it is necessary to establish an equivalence between these different struggles. It is only on this condition that struggles against power become truly democratic and that the demanding of rights is not carried out on the basis of an individualistic problematic.

So I agree with finding equivalence between these different struggles. But I don’t see struggles against the current powers having much chance of success. So I don’t want to frame it as a “struggle against power” or a “demanding of rights”. To me that is still too much of a (9:41) “negative demand”. I want, with the power of the internet, digital participation, radical plurality, to make power irrelevant. To take the rights we need. Not ask for them. Yes, have agreed rules of law, have enforcement of those laws in agreed ways, – in short, have governance, but not have national, corruptible, capturable governments. Keep that accountability at the lowest appropriate level – subsidiarity (and I think the lowest appropriate level is probably neighbourhoods or villages, about 10 000 people). I want this game to be a platform to do that.

So, for example, n your neighbourhood you have slaves. Fine. but if my neighbourhood believes that is wrong, then we can choose not to give you what you need. This is not new, this is how geopolitics work. If you have all the water (or, y’know, oil) and you have slaves, we don’t have much of a say if we don’t want to die of thirst. But I want to re-jiggle that balance to neighbourhoods, not nations, not empires. Because 1) I believe that with the changing dynamics our technological advances have brought, and the knowledge economy making resource flows more, uh, fluid? this has become feasible, and 2) it should not be so bloody hard as an individual to escape a government that is not accountable. It’s much easier to flee a neighbourhood.

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