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Digital realpolitik: in defence of twitter, facebook and the rest

Last week, there was a column over at the Telegraph examining the role of “social media” – i.e. twitter, facebook etc – in the recent struggles for democracy around the world. Twitterers in Tehran, nationalists in Georgia, and the massive internet backlash against Republican attempts to slander the British NHS are all examined. I think everyone should read the article, as it makes clear by its faults just how important a simultaneous articulation of theory and practice can be – especially when the alternative is to damn “social media” as being tools of authoritarianism.

The core contentions of the Telegraph article are pretty clear. “The failure of Obama to successfully revitalise his once powerful Internet base…logistical challenges…Social media’s supposedly democratic networking tools had been turned on their authoritarian head…instead become the means of suppressing free speech and persecuting a solitary social media activist.” That’s not all. The allure of the internet “allows governments to trade social or sexual online freedom with their citizens in exchange for restricting basic political rights.”

Without wishing to go into the veracity of such claims, I wonder if the Telegraph people have got everything backwards. Reading about the rise of Lacanian philosophy post-1968, after the concrete political demands of the May movement had been defeated, I am struck by how the introverted gaze of psychoanalysis can appear as a substitute for a real political engagement – especially with its pretentions to explain the world and human actions without having to shift focus from the individual. Is the rise of the internet in authoritarian countries not reminiscent of this?

Instead of seeing the internet as a bargaining chip in the hands of governments, is it not the case that, having been frustrated in their real demands, cyber gluttony of one form or another is all that is left? Much in the same way, post-1968, reforming onesself became a placeholder for reforming real power relations and the State. Of course, of necessity, all of this is impressionistic. There are ways we could study such a contention: for example by studying the history of popular music to see if there is a correlation between gluts of popular songs about romantic love – a pretty obvious form of narcissism on the part of the listener, it seems to me – and the collapse of social movements.

Similarly for internet usage stats. Obviously such studies would be more complex than I lay out here – in all consumption there is bias by class and status etc and this would have to be factored in.

If we choose a different contention from the article to turn on its head, what about the idea that logistical challenges have prevented Obama from reawakening his “internet base” to fight for socialized medicine? Firstly, I have seen nothing to suggest that Obama has tried to use his grassroots appeal against Republicans in Congress, or Blue Dog Democrats. Indeed some stories from the Daily Kos suggest that the opposite is the case: that people inside the administration – Rahm Emanuel – are standing with the Blue Dog Democrats. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine, having seen the conflict between grassroots hero and former DNC chair Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel over Dean’s 50-state strategy.

All of this is testament to the contradiction which many pointed to in the Obama campaign: portrayed as left-wing, whipping up Democratic activism to a level not seen in years, the administration is hoist on its own petard – because Obama is not radical, and there was inevitably going to be a clash between expectant activists and the reality. This is how Glenn Greenwald’s critiques of ‘narrow monied interests’ and the two-faced cynicism of Obama and Congressional Democrats are finding resonance among left-wing Democratic supporters.

Criticisms in the original Telegraph article attempted to lay out how these problems, either with Obama or with the passivity of those ruled by authoritarian governments or whatever, were facilitated by digital social media. I think this contention is nonsense. Quite the opposite: social media, its use and abuse, merely reflect the ‘realpolitik’ on the ground. In Iran, it is simply to play out Mao’s old adage that power grows from the barrel of a gun. In the US, it’s to prove that we need more than activist campaigns, we need activist led and controlled campaigns. In Russia and Georgia, this realpolitik is that one activist can’t defy a massive, well-funded state apparatus.

More than ever the limitations of social media demonstrate the space vacated by mass political movements – but this is a conclusion which the authors of the Telegraph piece are never likely to make.

Said authors deputize Evgeny Morozov to their side (see this interesting interview), warning about the authoritarian potentials of social media – but the authors fail to point out that traditional media has exactly the same potential. The use of the Telegraph as a tool of propaganda after the morass of elections on the island of Sark stands out as a particularly relevant example. This is a feature of newspapers which stretch back to government ‘fact sheets’ during the 1926 General Strike and come bang up to date with the nonsense spewed day after day by Fox News. This is the power of organized capital to distort the space for public debate.

The natural conclusion, of course, one that will never be reached by bourgeois journalists writing for the Telegraph, is that to combat such power we must abolish capitalism and the State, replacing it with our own representative institutions and socialized, not just social, media. For further reading, check out Septicisle and Sunny.

  1. missivesfrommarx
    August 22, 2009 at 9:47 pm


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