Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bloggers and real people

This letter seems to have been lost in the International Socialist Review's transition to a new format. It is a reply to "Will the Revolution Be Tweeted?"

I was glad to see the ISR publish Brian Lenzo’s piece on political organizing through the Internet and social media, because it says true things about issues with which organizers need to be grappling. But I’m afraid that Brian gets somewhat carried away with his polemic against cyber utopians and corporate boosters, accurate as it may be. He repeatedly implies a series of too-common conflations between disparate oppositions: online/offline, superstructure/base, and the organizing styles and human relationships that have been labeled ‘weak-tie’ and ‘strong-tie’. And in the end, he wrongly categorizes the changes that have come with the Internet as surface turbulence requiring only new tactical thinking.

Brian raises what I think is a central question: “How does the hyper individualism promoted by neoliberalism combine with digitized social interactions to affect class consciousness?” I don’t have a real answer to this. But I want to try to clarify our starting point. Brian argues that “any look beneath the surface of the digital revolution reveals the hallmarks of old capitalism.” I agree that capitalism’s driving forces remain the same. But I think we need to recognize that changes tied to new technologies and patterns of communication cut past the surface and have transformed the spatial and social organization of workers inside and outside of production.

After a valuable survey of the role of Internet organizing in struggles around the world, Brian sets out to rebut three “cyber utopian” propositions:
  1. A faith in the power of the Internet to reveal “the truth” to the knowledge seekers. 
  2. A belief in the power of the Internet, or more accurately “the network,” to build community and develop social ties that capitalism has otherwise prevented. 
  3. A conclusion that the Internet and social media have altered the central contradictions of capitalism, possibly resulting in a peaceful resolution or complete transformation in favor of the oppressed.
Brian quickly and thoroughly refutes the first, but fails, I think, to acknowledge the grain of truth in the second. The result is that against the third, which he is right to reject, he scores some points, but leaves some gaps in his argument.

Let’s start with that last. Brian’s piece asks, “If Facebook and Google are free, how are these corporations making so much money?”, and answers, “As any Marxist will tell you, it’s all about production.” Sure, but what kind? Brian elaborates:

“Connection to any of these services requires a device of some kind, a device that must be produced by someone... If mining the raw materials wasn’t dirty enough, phones, tablets, and computers are produced in giant sweatshops...There are also the giant server farms... e-waste from Europe and the United States is being dumped back on Africa, India, and China...”
This is all true (and important, and relevant to Facebook and Google), but not actually how they make their money. They don’t manufacture devices (well, Google’s now-subsidiary Motorola does, but that’s both recent and a small part of Google’s profits). In fact, Brian has provided the answer earlier: “Google and Facebook’s users are actually the product, not the customer.”

So why then here talk at such length about the products of other players in the technology industry, which can be measured in more traditional physical categories of units and tonnage? I’m not sure, but luckily, this part of the polemic is unnecessary. It’s true that the “pillars of capitalism have [not] been fundamentally changed,” but capitalism has never been fundamentally about the production of physical objects anyway. Less fortunately, we haven’t yet really addressed how the methods and organization of capitalist production--including bulk physical production--might have changed.

What’s worse is that even social media companies’ real product, users, is brought up in its own context as basically a red herring with respect to the second of the key questions Brian sets out to address: whether the Internet or “the network” has changed how we “build community and develop social ties.” He does not attempt to rebut this directly; instead he spends most of his words explaining that both advertisers and the state are “feasting” on the information about social ties that becomes visible when they are digitized.

Our class enemies’ ability to surveil friendships & political organizing carried out through the Internet is real and threatening, but nevertheless online communication is now built into the fabric of our relationships to one another and we need to deal with this. We can’t point out its downsides and move on. We can safely assume that the commodification of our human interactions affects their content, but we need to specify how.

The closest Brian comes to this is when he later cites Malcolm Gladwell (which ought to be a red flag in itself). Gladwell applies a distinction between ‘weak ties’ and ‘strong ties’ to contrast the kind of relationships built by activist social media to the relationships which gave activists the courage to go to Mississippi for a Freedom Summer.

But not all ties built online are of the same strength, and neither are all ties built ‘IRL’. Handing someone a flyer is not the same thing as having a conversation with them, which is not the same as going to jail with them. Putting someone on your mass email list is not the same thing as having a series of written discussions with them through web postings, which is not the same as exchanging sexts. It would be a definite practical mistake to categorically assume that relationships built through face-to-face speech are always stronger than those mediated by technology. Gladwell has identified a dynamic affecting some online interactions, but we need to think more specifically.

According to Brian, “It would also be a mistake to confuse posting articles on Facebook or blogging with real debate and discussion with real people.” But in fact, the confusion arises when you forget that people remain real physical beings even as they communicate via post-1980 technologies. Yes, online communication works differently than previous technologies, but that’s precisely the point: we need to figure out what these differences imply.

A couple sketches of areas where I think Internet technologies have helped change real social relationships in ways that matter. (These are rough, but at least I should be able to fend off any charge of utopianism.)

One: social media platforms are shaped by their builders’ need to sell advertising, and one of the central techniques is to integrate with their users’ need, in a neoliberal labor market, to promote themselves as the kind of employee and service provider that a viewer would want to hire. So they show paid ads interspersed with ‘personal’ posts which themselves are very often used--with varying degrees of conscious planning--as marketing, to promote a kind of personal brand. In this context it’s easier to push an individual ‘thinker’, a star, than an organization or a coherent set of ideas developed collectively. At best, it’s easy to promote a slogan, but difficult to promote a theory; easy to promote an article, difficult to promote a Socialist Worker. Those of us fighting for systemic change need not concede to this, but it should impact what and how we publish.

Two: net-based organization makes it possible to automate and measure new tasks. You can easily put ten different messages in the form of email subjects, send each to a couple thousand people, and measure the click-through rates to see which gets the most response. This has its uses, of course, but it’s also easy to see how it can reward lowest-common-denominator vacuity and manipulative language with rapid ‘membership’ growth. We need to learn not only how to seize the opportunities here, but also what the sudden ease of ‘professionalizing’ activism in this way means for the landscape of popular organization.

Let’s take a step back. Capitalism has evolved continuously as long as it has existed, and some of the more recent changes touch on the basics of Marxist thinking about how to defeat it. Marx wrote in Capital: “As a general rule, labourers cannot co-operate without being brought together: their assemblage in one place is a necessary condition of their co-operation.” And this was a key point in his vision of capitalism’s overthrow, as he wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”

But we live in a world where productive cooperation increasingly takes place across spatial divides, whether that means Facebook or Google programmers cooperating online or the workers who form parts of an international production chain that starts in Bangladesh and ends up with a pair of pants being sold in a Walmart. One way of looking at this is that capitalists have, to some extent, figured out how to use new technologies to allow the kind of communication they need without providing many of the spaces they used to for communication that challenges their control. It is in this context that, as Brian mentions, neoliberalism has pushed popular culture towards individualism, as well as weakening or destroying working class organizations.

We have seen this play out in the key role that the occupation of physical space has played in recent upsurges around the world. One of the things offered by Liberty Square in New York--or, I would guess, a Tahrir, Syntagma, or Taksim--was a place where relationships between people with distinct ideas and experiences could be built and political discussions could be natural, casual, and continuing. That kind of place can be hard to find otherwise. Unfortunately, here in the US we have not shown the ability to hold on to public space when the state decides the time has come to take it away. Which means that we are left with a major challenge if we want to rebuild a left culture in which people routinely think and react to events in political, class-conscious way.

And yet, we know that humans are social animals. We know, more specifically, that capitalism requires ever-more-extensive cooperation, which is one way the system’s internal contradictions continue to provide resources for its defeat. We’ll just have not only to use different tools than our forerunners--we’ll have to use them for new purposes, to solve different problems.