Left solidarity needs to venture offline

Submitted by Matthew on 26 March, 2014 - 11:03

Bruce Robinson (Solidarity 316) is right. My claim that networked communications foreclose politics was too extreme. I revised it in the version of the essay that appeared in my book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies.

There I express the idea as the displacement of politics. (The terms “foreclosure” and “displacement’ come from psychoanalysis. The implication of “foreclosure” is that only psychotic acting out and violence is possible. The implication of “displacement” is that political action takes place not in the site of antagonism but elsewhere.)

Why exactly was my earlier claim too strong? Bruce says because it is too all-embracing and leads to contradictory conclusions. I think we can be more precise here.

My earlier claim of foreclosure was too broad because it did not highlight conservative, capitalist, and liberal (that is to say, bourgeois) politics as the kind of politics that flourishes in online settings because of the basic features of networked communication (features that make extreme views more likely to attract attention, that privilege short, punchy claims rather than thoughtful arguments, that increase the circulatory power of images and emotion etc. — for more details of this argument, see my book Blog Theory). So, my claim regarding foreclosure was not too extreme because it omitted left political possibilities but because the term foreclosure did not account for right ones.

Bruce wants us to think of the internet as it serves international solidarity and serious political debate.

What is at stake in thinking of the internet as serving international solidarity and serious political debate? The claim has to involve more than something like “email lets us send announcements to people” and “websites can feature debates”. Those claims are not controversial, but they reduce networked communication to tools without context. That is, they omit the larger set of media practices involved in networked communication (massive amounts of circulating data, tons of distraction, complex media field, etc).

So, the claim has to be more. And in fact it has been: for the last 15 or 20 years (at least), the internet has been held up as the solution to problems of political participation. We’ve been told that not only is it a tool for organising but that it can replace old forms of organisation because it makes organising quicker and easier. If the internet were this great aid to the left, wouldn’t we be stronger? Wouldn’t we have seen our solidarity increasing, our events bringing out more people, our cause becoming furthered? This does not appear to be the case. The internet doesn’t take the place of our organisations. It is not the case that we had no sites for serious political debate — our newspapers, journals, meetings — prior to the internet.

Western commentators have been enthusiastic in their reduction of the Arab spring to media, turning it in to a Facebook revolution as if that mattered more than 100,000 people in Tahrir Square for weeks on end.

In my view, this refits revolution for capitalism, making it available to circulate as spectacle of commodity as it defuses its actual political power. The emphasis on technology over organised street protests makes protesters into consumers who just want more opportunities to participate in networked entertainment culture or to express themselves as individuals. Collective struggle gets displaced onto personal media devices. In short, the key feature of the Arab spring was not digital media even though that’s what the mainstream media wants those of us in the US and UK to think.

Indy-media and open source software: these kinds of projects have been celebrated for decades.

On the one hand, they quickly get absorbed within the larger dynamics of communicative capitalism — more content, more apps. There is so much on the internet that it’s hard to see why one more report, opinion, or piece of software is politically significant. On the other hand, indy-media and open source distract us from the goals of politics and make us think about means. Political activity comes to be thought of in terms of producing content or devices for a general market (even if it is a marketplace of ideas); “awareness” and getting media attention become the goals. But, the struggle these goals are part of gets completely displaced — a matter of individual opinion. In other words, the problem is that focus shifts away from building political will within the class struggle.

If we are to avoid repeating the mainstream’s banal debates over social media, we need to specify what our goals are and how social media help us meet these goals or how they hinder us from meeting them. If a goal is announcing an event, then circulating the announcement through a variety of media can be useful. These media should include fliers in areas where people who don’t use the internet very much can find them. The very processes that create echo-chambers online limit the scope of announcements that circulate online. Consequently, this has to be actively worked against.

It also appears that focusing on networked communication excludes those whose work does not connect them to computers, as well as those who are unemployed, homeless, or unconnected. We end up producing a vision of a left that excludes parts of the working class.

Combatting the primary problem of social media, its personalisation, its inherent bourgeois-liberal reinforcement of the individual as the site of interest and action, will be more difficult. With respect to Facebook, people participate as individuals. They comment and discuss as individuals. This presses people toward wanting to distinguish themselves as individuals rather than to find ways of building solidarity. An impressive alternative that emerged online has been Anonymous. Although they act as individuals, insofar as they act under a common name, they rupture individualist suppositions.

We should also acknowledge the role of surveillance. To the extent that we work to develop a robust digital left, we make all of our actions, identities, connections, and ideas available to capital and the state. As class struggle intensifies, as we undertake actions that come into direct confront with the state, this kind of exposure will work to our detriment.

It may not be impossible to build solidarity online. So far, it does not seem to be the case that social media has led to the production of dependable comradeship. It seems instead that it furthers snark, snipe, and distraction.

But what kind of solidarity do we have in mind anyway? One of clickers and sharers? Of likers and followers? Of readers and writers? What about actions among people in our workplaces and neighbourhoods?

It seems to me that left solidarity has to venture offline in order to be any solidarity at all. To the extent that networked interactions are our focus, we fail fundamentally to build political power.

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