I always liked the phrase “primordial ooze.” It is fun to say and the ten year old in me sees a bubbling, steaming goo that seems to defy order and good manners. I also like it because it captures the idea of how the new emerges from the old, how complexity emerges from sets of interactions that are not supposed to add up to the emergent.
Two items from today made me wonder if we are looking at the primordial ooze of civil society. Let me say here that by civil society I am not entering into some long-standing debate about what is or isn’t civil society. I am looking for a term that covers the idea of collective or coordinated action of varying degrees of formality that is centered on common ground of like-minded actors. Also, this common ground must unite people around some sense of a common good or higher purpose. In short, human organizing motivated by “ruled” by practices that are not of formal state power nor purely economic rationality. I am not sure if that holds up, but I’ll leave it there for now.
So, item #1. Egypt, of course. Like countless others, I am fascinated, hopeful, fearful, and awe struck by the events unfolding first in Tunisia and now more spectacularly in Egypt. Through the media I have followed (Democracy Now, KCRW’s To The Point, NY time, Huffingtonpost, BBC, Guardian), there are several elements at work. In no particular order.
* Youthful, technology-enabled activists.
* The Muslim Brotherhood
* Dissident elites (like El Baradei)
* Neighborhood watch patrols
Some of these groups seem loosely organized or rapidly scaling up and out as they absorb the tens or hundreds of thousands of newly mobilized citizens. I imagine new organizing, new durable networks of trust and cooperation, and new alliances among the other two are a major part of the fluidity and flux. This (to me) palpable sense of what could be captures the imagery of the primordial ooze of civil society.
Item #2: The Really Free School. A random facebook message put me on to this (originating in theory.org.uk, home of theory trading cards). I have not been able to explore it much, but what struck me is the basic ethos: let’s use a common space, the (Shirky-ean) low cost of coordinating, the ability of people to self-organize, and the cultural scripts of sharing knowledge and delighting in serious play. Though not as fluid or important as Egypt, it also seems to me to get at the origins,at the primordial ooze, of civil society in its simplicity and open-endedness.