Saturday, 17 October 2009

We got online

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia (launched January 2001), is asked in The Guardian's slightly early retrospective of the decade how he would sum up the Noughties in just three words. His answer: 'We got online'.

There are of course other possible answers to the question, which would allude to economic or geopolitical or cultural developments, but this one captures a huge - and hugely significant - area of transformation in the past ten years.

I got it wrong

To speak of transformation is no exaggeration. A few years ago I held to the view that we were seeing noteworthy changes but there was also a mass of hype about the online revolution. I felt it simply wasn't comparable to the technological and communications revolution running from roughly the 1890s to 1914.

John Berger wrote a fascinating piece - which sadly I don't think is online - about how people's perceptions and ways of experiencing (and relating to) the world were changed by the extraordinary changes of the era: from the car to the phone to first flight to the radio to psychoanalysis. This was the basis, he argued, for the Cubist revolution in art (a revolution in seeing the world) from 1907 - and for the daring experiments of modernism more generally.

It seemed fanciful to compare our current epoch to that one. In some ways it still is, but on the terrain of technology I confess I was wrong. Anyone who knows me will testify to how rare it is for me to suggest I've been wrong about anything - and I won't be making a habit of it! But I admit to being slow in recognising the scale of development in people's Net use and the implications of this.

The ambivalent Left

Unfortunately, it is still true that the radical left - in this country and elsewhere - has struggled to grasp the implications for politcal activism and organisation. There has been no systematic attempt by Marxists to theorise the Net, or specifically the consequences for left-wing political organisation. While I'm not going to attempt such an ambitious task here, what's really required is a reformulation of Lenin's 'What is to be done?' for the online age.

There are now numerous examples of new technolgies being utilised by activists and protestors, including the high profile case of Twitter's role in spreading news about the upheavals in Iran. The mobile phone - especially thanks to its picture and video facilities - is proving to be a more dynamic political tool than we ever imagined.

The blogosphere is a major dimension of alternative media, many political radicals get their news and information principally online, and Facebook is routinely utilised for promoting campaigns and events (there's a fine example this week, with the backlash against Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir's vile homophobic slandering of Stephen Gately).

However, we need to also acknowledge the Left's slowness in engaging with the Net. Individuals have outstripped organisations, which by and large have been shackled by a combination of outmoded ideological assumptions and inertia. The Internet is still frequently viewed with distrust and suspicion - as a deviation from the proper business of paper selling or door knocking, or as something over-hyped that will pass, or as a fetish for the Chomskyist and autonomist and Indymedia types but irrelevant to the serious and high-minded Marxist left.

Socialists' engagement with the anti-capitalist movement made it as far as Genoa and Florence, but never quite made it into cyberspace.

Do networks still scare us?

One problem is a tendency to assume we know it all already and can't possibly learn from other political traditions. But if the anarchists or autonomists are doing something better than us, it might be helpful to learn from them. It doesn't mean adopting their politics too. This leads on to a related difficulty: the particular anxiety about online communications allegedly suiting an autonomistic preoccupation with 'networks', as distinct from the revolutionary left's adherence to democratic centralism.

The worry is that all those criss-crossing, overlapping networks undermine the authority of centralised leadership and the traditional vertical structures in an organisation, i.e. a national leadership at the centre, in two-way dialogue with lots of local geographical branches. Part of the answer to this is: well, so be it. We can't, Canute-like, attempt to hold back the tide - if the world is changing we have to change with it. And if it's changing, doesn't it makes sense to look for the opportunities rather than becoming straitjacketed by endless fussing about the dangers.

It is surely possible to combine decisive collective leadership with the free flourishing of all sorts of networks and new connections. The wave of student occupations in solidarity with Gaza earlier this year was greatly encouraged by the use of blogs, Facebook and other online tools. These spontaneous networks of solidarity weren't somehow useless because they had no national office making centralised decisions.

But at the same time it's a step forward when such networks find cohesive and national (or international) methods of organisation, which requires an infrastructure of sorts. The student Stop the War conference last month was attended by over 100 delegates, many of them activists involved in the occupations. National co-ordination like this should be seen as complementary.

Combining online and offline

Of course there are grand and exaggerated claims made for the Net. It isn't a 'new mode of production' and autonomists are liable to overstate the case for how 'placeless' we now are: politically, people still gather to protest or discuss or organise in specific places, and the simple realities of geography still matter (for example, I will still argue that the local branch should be the most important unit of organisation in any left wing party, campaign or trade union).

It should be stressed that political activity still happens, above all, offline. The online world is valuable for promoting those 'real world' demonstrations, public meetings etc.

Yet there's a tendency for left wing groups to obsess over the problems and miss the chances, with a negative starting point, e.g. "How do we preserve secrecy of internal debates?" or "What about the inequality in people's access to the Net?'

These are mostly now silly and superficial arguments. For example, it's obvious that socialist organisations need to be less precious about the supposedly 'internal' character of discussions - in this day and age it will be fantasically difficult to avoid the 'private' becoming public, so it is really a case of fighting a losing battle. And what, in any case, do we have to hide? Access to the Net is now so widespread that resistance to change premised on notions of the Net as predominantly middle class are simply inaccurate.

In practice

1. The Net is ideal for dissemniating pictures, video and audio. It is therefore inadequate to simply transfer printed text online and think that equals a satisfactory web operation. We need to exploit the myriad multi-media possibilities of what can be done online (I should note - before anyone else does - that the present article is not itself a model of good practice!).

2. The Net is just that: a network. So it's essential to link to other sources and build networks where people and groups support and promote each other. No site or blog exists in a vacuum.

The Left could still be a great deal better at using links to support each other. This also hints at the potential for answering the organisational questions posed by Lenin's 'What is to be done?', i.e. for rising to the challenge using online tools for permanent organisation as well as for spreading ideas and promoting spontaneous struggles.

3. The Net is immediate, urgent, responsive to the here and now. It doesn't conform to the deadlines and schedules of a weekly, or even daily, publication. Once it's happened it can go online (or even as it's happening).

4. The Net is do-it-yourself publishing, opening up opportunities for amateurs not just paid professionals. That means it's for all of us and anyone at all can contribute. Lenin's dream of a newspaper that pools the experiences of thousands of workers can be realised in a way that was much harder in Petrograd a century ago.

Readers can be turned, with ease, into contributors and participants. This also enriches the content produced through more 'offical channels', but more fundamentally it means us rethinking the whole basis of socialist publishing.

5. Online tools need to be integrated with more traditional practices into a coherent strategy, rather than being juxtaposed to them. It isn't an either/or choice.

Next steps

Anyway, these are merely some pointers, a rough draft of formulating how we can develop our use(s) of the Internet on the Left.

The challenge is twofold: firstly, to generalise and theorise from the multiple concrete examples of online activism we now have; and secondly, to outline more fully exactly how the radical (especially, from my view, the revolutionary) left can adapt its methods of organisations to match the social and politcal changes of the Web 2.0 epoch.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting - I've heard this a number of times recently (and perhaps only recently because I'm becoming a hermited wrinkly) about the need to rethink the role of socialist publications in the age of electronic media, blogs and the like. Certainly the ability of blogs to build significant audiences - witness Lenin's Tomb as a good example - and the way that they can respond instantaneously to news, events, struggles, etc. means that they must be taken into consideration as legitimate tools for socialist organization. But I think you're also right that the full implications of haven't been explored. In part it's for good reasons. There's always a tension in socialist organization between initiative and routine. Surrendering routine and infrastructure can be very dangerous to the stability of organizations. But initiative is also necessary to maintain contact with any given period, with the changes in the lives of working people, etc. A good leadership knows how to "surf" that contradiction without falling over into a stifling conservatism or into forms of party liquidationism. Alas, I'm not the leader who has an answer to how far one must take it and what sort of expansion into cyberspace one ought to encourage. Certainly a more organized approach to blogging would be a good place to start...