Australia's GetUp! movement is Jeremy Heimans' "new power" in action. How is it exercised?

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A correspondent of ours on Twitter pointed us to an Australian organisation the other day which A/UK reminded her of - something called GetUp! New to us, it looked on the surface like campaign organisations we knew well - in particular, the petitions-and-actions site 38 Degrees (they even have nearly the same slogan - GetUp!'s "People. Power. Impact", as opposed to 38 Degrees' "People. Power. Change.")

GetUp! ties a straightforward digital action you can take to each of its campaign posts. Raising money for ad campaigns against regressive politicians, signing petitions against mining operations, emailing MPs about the poor state of refugee camps, social media sharing of information on tax dodgers... Much of this will be familiar to users of 38 Degrees, and particularly Avaaz. 

Yet one would say that GetUp! has quite a clear ideological line in its campaigns - which themselves seem powerfully directed and strategised. See their opening blurb:

We are a powerful campaigning community... By combining the sheer power of a million members, movement partners and a central team of expert strategists, we do what it takes to get things done.

Our work is driven by our values, not party politics. GetUp is, and always has been, an independent organisation. GetUp is about making change, not just making noise. Everything we do is guided by carefully crafted strategies designed to win.

...GetUp members come from every walk of life, coming together around a shared belief in fairness, compassion and courage. It is GetUp members who set our movement’s agenda on issues they care about, in the fields of Environmental Justice, Human Rights, Economic Fairness and Democratic Integrity. Our work is driven by values, not party politics.

Intriguing. We've been digging into GetUp!, and have discovered a whole history behind it, one that leads to one of the most interesting figures in discussions about a new politics - the founder of Purpose, a co-founder of Avaaz, and co-author of New Power, Jeremy Heimans

This feature article in Australia's The Monthly is a full profile of Heimans - but it's immediately interesting in its account of how and why GetUp! was started. They initially took money from Australian Labor interests, and yet:

... To be allied with Labor or any other party was specifically what Heimans [was] rejecting when they founded GetUp! “We thought the parties were hopeless, they’d completely failed to provide an effective opposition to the conservative policies of the Howard government,” Heimans says. “We believed the only way to revitalise the progressive movement in Australia was to have nothing to do with changing the political party apparatus.”

Heimans describes GetUp!’s pitch: “If you want a democratic anchor for progressive Australian politics, that is what we’ll be. We’ll keep all the bastards honest – Coalition, Labor, the Greens.” GetUp! campaigns would follow the values of “social justice, economic fairness, environmental sustainability”, fall where they may in the political debate. GetUp! was far from neutral on those debates, but Heimans says it took the side of the issue, not a party.

When Heimans' talks about "new power", it can sound like what our co-initiator Indra Adnan means when she invokes Joe Nye's "soft power" - the power of connection and attraction, not force and compulsion. Again from the Monthly article:

They contrast “old power”, akin to currency that is hoarded and used to exert authority, with “new power”, which channels and distributes agency, acting more like a current. New power values include open-source collaboration, radical transparency and self-organisation; old power values include competition, exclusivity, confidentiality, expertise, managerialism and long-term loyalty.

To further explain their ideas, Heimans and Timms developed the “new power compass”, which shows how the old and new models and values intersect [see below, from their book website] There are “castles” (those with an old power model and old power values, such as government taxation offices); “co-opters” (those with a new power model but old power values, such as ISIS, Facebook and Uber); “cheerleaders” (those with an old power model but new power values, such as corporations like Unilever and media organisations like The Guardian); and “crowds” (those with a new power model and new power values, such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Airbnb and Wikipedia).

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In a presentation made at FutureFest in London a few months ago (see embed below), Heimans pointed to the top-right quadrant in this map as the most "dangerous" area - those organisations and projects that use new power models to promote old power values. In the Monthly piece, he talks about Isis and Trump in this way: 

"Trump – and this is also true of ISIS – is giving people more agency, unleashing their creativity: ‘Do your worst and I’ll pay your legal fees. I’ll pluck your memes out of the obscurity of Reddit or 4chan and tweet them out.’” Heimans explains that Trump is not trying to circumscribe how his movement behaves. “Trump’s value proposition to those people is very old power, offering certainty: ‘I’ll look after everything, I know you’re anxious about the future, I alone can fix it.’ ISIS is a medieval theocracy that could not be more old power, a brutal hierarchy.

"And yet how they spread that energy and build that movement is very new power: letting their supporters do what they want, not being doctrinal in allowing them to build on their idea in an extensible way. My worry is that this combination of strategies could be very effective. If you’re a potential ISIS recruit, you’re getting both more agency and more belonging and certainty.”

At the end of the FutureFest Q&A, Heimans is asked about his idea that the tech-literate forces of reaction are sending out "intensity machines", which progressives have to match in intensity. But, asks Nesta's Salima Khan, might we need instead more deliberation and more connections"; less "ratcheting up" and more bridges between positions? 

Heimans response is interesting, particularly metaphorically:

Pragmatically and unfortunately, the people who are trying to divide and spread falsehoods and misinformation are going to use these techniques - so we shouldn't unilaterally disarm. It's very important that those of us spreading progressive values should do so with a similar degree of intensity... It does require an energetic embrace of these new techniques and mindsets. It's not good enough to say, 'we're right, we have the facts on our side, and we don't want to get our hands dirty'. 

So there's the current arms-race of political technologies, precisely defined. We would only point to those citizens standing over there, watching the fireworks, and being occasionally stung by flying sparks. That is: don't forget the power of free minds, exchanging fully, in real and convivial meetings.