Jul 15 2012

Networked Decentralized Volunteerism Rears Its Head In Russian Emergency

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While President Vlad Putin tries to wrest control of the internet,  young internet-savvy activists are showing up post-Soviet bureaucrats by providing flood relief in Krymsk, Russia.

As the New York Times reported  on Saturday: “The catastrophic flooding of the city of Krymsk has unfolded in an unusually public way over the last week, largely thanks to the power of the Internet. One result has been widespread questioning of the state’s response. Another was a motley stream of young volunteers — officials say more than 2,000 — who have arrived along with trucks full of private donations in a city that was not expecting them.

“This activism heralds a jarring change in a country that, throughout the Soviet period, approached disaster response as a military matter and was able to insist on secrecy.”

This isn’t the first time a group of networked volunteers bested the response of government bureaucrats.   During the Hurricane Katrina debacle, former New Orleans Black Panther leader Malik Rahim, along with members of a local anarchist collective, ignored evacuation orders and — with the help of volunteers organized via the internet, including members of Tennessee’s longest acting hippie commune, The Farm — operated a relief distribution center that got aide to thousands of folks who were otherwise being ignored, both during the initial crisis and during the chaotic months that followed.

A while back, I wrote an article for H+ magazine  about the notion that Voluntary Collaborationism could be the economic model for the future.  I won’t repeat it here, but I encourage you to read it.

Of course, this kind of voluntary activity has always been common in emergencies.  What’s new is the ability of ordinary people to deal with fluid situations in an organized way using mobile communications tech — and to do it, sometimes, better than well-funded organizations that are set up to handle these situations but are more bureaucratic, and thus less fluid; and less motivated.

The question, of course, is how far and how deep this model can be extended.  Can it become a dominant form for creative and productive activity, or will it remain something that occasionally pops up from the margins.

It seems like there are two routes via which “Voluntary Collaborationism” might emerge as a powerful or even dominant model.  One would be in a situation in which the usual structures we rely on go into total collapse — in other words, a constant emergency that evokes this common response ongoingly. There’s a lot of apocalypticism amongst many types who would hope that Voluntary Collaborationism (or Mutual Aid, in the more purist Left Anarchist lexicon) could become the next model.   I don’t think it works like that.  I think that good altruistic behavior is a frequent, organic human response at the start of a crisis.  It’s not the natural human response to the ongoing grind of bad conditions as evidenced by most societies that live with a dearth of resources.

It’s more likely that Voluntary Collaborationism would be born of opportunity — that it would first emerge out of a surfeit of leisure amidst basic economic security.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck in-between — with the politics of austerity being imposed by a low-grade constant emergency that’s based less on actual resources and wealth than on the abstracted shenanigans of “finance.”   And that reality (the “new normal”) could grind on for decades.

But at least we will have occasional reason to celebrate the creativity and organization of NGO individuals and groups who deal with conditions in a savvy and spirited way, as we are currently seeing in  Krymsk, Russia.