Sunday, 25 April 2010

Can online networks help us change the world?

There's a fascinating, highly insightful article at Counterfire called 'The internet - serving the revolution?' The article does something extremely unusual - and very welcome - by outlining the economic and social basis of the Internet and its political potential. This is especially good because of the writer's grasp of the contradictions at work. He therefore avoids the twin dangers of, as he puts it, neo-Luddism and techno-Utopianism.

I think this is also helpful because the Net is often seen as somehow 'outside' the system, as a parallel space where the normal rules and relations don't apply. This article debunks that myth. Instead we can start to explore how the internet is interconnected with wider society, how it is shaped by contemporary capitalism.

However, it's also an important piece because Christian Fuchs avoids the trap of saying therefore the Net can simply be analysed with some old-fashioned Marxist economic analysis pulled out of the hat. In fact it presents new features and contradictions. I like the way he identifies 3 elements that characterise the Net: networking makes information uncontrollable, information-sharing undermines private property and individualism, networks enable connections.

It would be interesting to further explore the political implications of the Net for socialists (I know it's a topic for discussion at Counterforum next weekend). This is where I think some weaknesses creep in to the analysis (towards the end of his article).

Partly this is because I think Fuchs doesn't have a fully-rounded view of democracy. It isn't just about freedom, discussion, sharing. It's also about decision-making, accountability, organisation.

On the latter point there are severe limitations to the Net. For example, in a comments thread people can exchange views, but if you want to agree on common action there's absolutely no mechanism for doing so. Nor can there be - it requires face-to-face collective meetings combined with the organised electing/delegating of roles and responsibilities.

And that, of course, takes us offline. It remains true that decisive political action will take place offline: the online world can serve that, but not replace it. The biggest challenge is how to develop the relationship between online and offline, so that what we do on the Net (which is inherently limited) can be of maximum benefit.

I think the article has an unduly negative view of our current predicament politically: it is a little one-sided, ironically given the author's superbly dialectical approach elsewhere avoiding the danger of one-sidedness.

His overall conclusion is the need for radical reformism. I think this depends on an application of Gramsci's ideas on hegemony which is misguided. Chris Nineham's recent article on Gramsci and hegemony gives a stronger - and revolutionary - interpretation, which we could start to think about in relation to the internet.

Reformist, or transitional, demands are very important. A number of those proposed by Fuchs (but not all) should be endorsed and pursuded. But those demands shouldn't be a substitute for recognising the need for a revolutionary transformation of society. We need to develop a revolutionary perspective on the politics of the internet as part of a broader social transformation. In this context we can formulate reforms worth fighting for.

It would also be helpful to consider how socialists can best use the internet to serve social change. Fuchs provides a list which is largely focused on political demands concerning the Net. These are very important. It's also important, though, to consider how we can (within current social constraints) use the tools available to us.

I won't attempt that here, but a key element is social networking - in line with the article's point about the way networking undermines control and ownership, through the ways in which it spreads information. A second key element might be to look at the precise ways the net can be linked with offline political activity and organisation. This is an exciting area and one where we need to innovate.

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