Social media, politics, and the "Schweitzer model"

Submitted by martin on 1 August, 2019 - 12:21 Author: Rhodri Evans
social media and politics

The decade-and-a-bit since the 2008 crash has been a distinct period of capitalism in economic and in political terms. It has also been a distinct period in the technology of political communications.

Twitter "took off" around 2007, Facebook "took off" around 2009, mass use of smartphones "took off" about the same time. For a few years now, more web browsing has been done via smartphones than via computers. Tablets and e-readers, once said to be the wave of the future, have lagged.

Many young people today get their news of the world via social media, rather than via newspapers or TV news shows or even directly from news websites.

This technological development has facilitated the emergence of new forms of old political patterns.

J B von Schweitzer was the leader of the "Lassallean" workers' movement in Germany from Lassalle's death in 1864 through to 1871, and is known to Marxists today mostly for some letters which Marx wrote to him.

August Bebel became in those years, with Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the leaders of a strand in the German workers' movement closer to Marx and Engels. In 1910, writing an autobiography, he looked back on Schweitzer's record.

Schweitzer, he said, had been energetic, intelligent, studious, and a good speaker. But:

"He had a knack of flattering the masses, whom he really despised, which I have never seen in greater perfection in any man. He spoke of himself as their instrument, bound to do the sovereign will of the people, the 'sovereign people' who read nothing but his own paper and on whom he imposed his will by suggestion.

"Whosoever dared to kick against the pricks was taxed with the lowest motives, branded as an idiot, or as an 'intellectual' who despised the brave, honest workers and wanted to exploit them in his own interests".

Bebel himself was accused by Schweitzer, ludicrously, of receiving secret payments from the King of Hanover.

Schweitzer was a demagogue. His political line was erratic, but always presented as reflecting the instinctive sound good sense of the plebeian masses. His political movement was built not as a structured democracy (with recognised, experienced, reasonably stable leaders), but as a rallying around himself as a personality.

He marked out the boundaries of the movement, and defended it against critics, not by political arguments, but by a whirl of emotion-laden personal accusations against the critics.

In the era since 2008 the same methods have been used in mainstream bourgeois politics by Trump and Bolsonaro and Farage on the right. In the "centre", Macron and Grillo have adapted similar methods, building "parties" without memberships. On the "left", George Galloway and Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon have used similar techniques. Some of those techniques are used, on a smaller scale, by grouplets around the left such as Red London which act as outriders for more "standard" Stalinistic currents like the Morning Star.

Schweitzer had his success because working-class politics then in Germany was very loose-knit and atomised. The main "technology" of political communication must have been face-to-face chat. Bebel records that when Schweitzer's ADAV had a membership of 12,000 or so, its newspaper had a circulation of only 500, rising to 1200. Literacy was already almost universal in Germany, but there must have been many workers unready for the cost and trouble of newspapers.

The increase of political communication mediated through short, skim-read messages, which gain circulation by being emotive rather than being evidenced or reasoned, recreates similar conditions, and greater potential speeds of expansion.

Schweitzer's success was short-lived because the movement quickly developed new technologies of communication which increased the weight of reason and evidence and critical discussion - big political meetings, then much wider readership of newspapers, to be followed by the rise of large workplaces and workplace-based union organisation. Schweitzer resigned as ADAV leader in 1871, was formally expelled by ADAV in 1872, and died, isolated, in 1875.

The technologies do not automatically shape the politics. Some demagogic leaders today and many in the past use or have used more-or-less structured political parties, newspapers, etc.: Johnson, Salvini, Erdogan, Modi, etc.

The new technologies create other possibilities. They allow demonstrations and meetings to be publicised more quickly. They also allow the more studious to fact-check and to compare reports more quickly and more easily than in eras dominated by printed-paper communication. They probably mean that the thinking of the "not-very-political" is shaped more by self-chosen groups of friends and "friends" than (as it would have been in times dominated by "real-life" chat as political communication) by family and religious leaders.

Given, however, a relatively low level of strikes and such since 2008, and thus a relatively atomised, labile state of political life, the new technologies have facilitated the rise of new and quick-growing political "bubbles". Those have become weighty realities in their own right, significant factors to be combatted in the struggle for politics based on reason and evidence.

• The printed paper carries an abridged version of this article.

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