Jeff Juris’ “Networking Futures”

Some time ago, I read Networking Futures by Jeff Juris. A trained anthropologist, Juris spent 18 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork among anti-corporate globalization activists in Barcelona at the height of the protests against the neo-liberal economic institutions in 2000-2002.

Juris’ main argument is simple enough: That the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movements involve a growing a confluence of forms (organisational structures), norms (political models and ideals), and technologies (the computer infrastructure – typically mailing lists – through which the movement interacts).

Juris points out that these networks are not inherently democratic (they are basically structured in the same distributed manner as Al Qaeda). Rather, the activists continually seek to build networks that promote their core values of participatory democracy, self-organisation and fierce egalitarianism.

Juris concludes his chapter on these participatory democratic practices by quoting one of his informants on his motivations for being involved beyond replacing “the current system of representative democracy”:

One of the things that motivates me these days is trying to figure out how we should organize democracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, given the technological infrastructure at our disposal and new forms of economic integration. How do we deepen our local democratic practices – at work and in our neighbourhoods – and transfer that spirit to the global level?

Throughout the book, Juris circles around this question of democratic practices and involvement, and he uses his book to explore a wide range of aspects of the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movement, including the direct action tactics, the participatory democratic coordination within affinity groups, shifting alliances between various groupings within the movement, the World Social Forums, and the use of digital platforms like Indymedia.

Juris does a decent job of presenting these experimental democratic practices, but I found myself growing ever more annoyed at Juris’ stance – for two reasons:

One: Every chapter ends up concluding that the democratic experiment presented is a confluence of norms-forms-technologies, but Juris doesn’t ever get into what that really means. Because there are so many different practices to describe and explain, Juris ends up spending the entire book focusing on ethnographic descriptions and anecdotes, leaving little room for analyzing and discussing the implications of these practices.

And so, every chapter ends up posing more interesting questions than the ones it sought to answer: What about those deepening local democratic practices? It’s too early to tell, apparently.

Two: Because of the focus on ethnographic description, Juris carefully seeks to position himself as an ethnographer. But even so, he is deeply sympathetic to the cause and committed to providing the movement with helpful research (and, he promises, not just in furthering his academic career).

That means he is caught up in a weird-role as a double agent: Both working for academia in understanding the anti-corporate globalization movement, as well as working for the anti-corporate globalization movement to help them understand themselves better – a position he calls militant ethnography:

For the militant ethnographer the issue is not so much the kind of knowledge produced, which is always practically engaged and collaborative, but rather, how is it presented, for which audience, and where is it distributed?

In “Networking Futures”, Juris talks very much to the academic audience, apologetically describing every element of his political involvement, reflecting on his role as a scientist in a field of subjective opinions, many of which he happens to agree with.

The result is a sort of tightly self-moderated eye-witness ethnography which describes the historical events of the anti-corporate globalisation movement in minute detail but dismisses the grander opportunity to explore where that movement are heading since those heady days of protests and social forums.

Considering this, I find that my main gripe with this book is that it isn’t what I wanted it to be. I had hoped for a book written by an activist full of passion and vision for a better, more democratic and positively human future – like David Graeber‘s excellent Possibilities. Instead, I got a somewhat anemic, academic work that does a decent job at explaining the past but offers little forward thinking.

I hope that Juris does have visions for a brighter future as well, and that he’ll share them with us all at some point.

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