[P2P-F] can the net drive movements ?

Michel Bauwens michel at p2pfoundation.net
Sun Feb 22 18:03:54 CET 2015

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina
Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to
describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were
inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy,
communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that
occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world.
Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably
so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to
contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this
instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past
couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more
necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot
recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left”
highly enough. If you read an excerpt
<http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/13/the-birth-of-the-cyber-left/> from
the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand
that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical
academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University
faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, *Digital Rebellion* is a mixture of reporting and
theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and
achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the
words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course
Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over
its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of
the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist
has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state
power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine,
an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview
Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is
uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the
business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

Wolfson examines the origins of Indymedia, its trajectory and final
implosion as a kind of symbol of the promise and limitations of
“horizontalism”, a term that is simply shorthand for a fairly coherent and
carefully worked out strategy for the mass movement. As an activist himself
who contributed time and energy to Indymedia, it is clear that he was
committed to its success and not just an outside observer passing judgment.
One might add that if the rest of academia was half as dedicated, the left
would be in much better shape today.

He begins by chronicling the tragic death of Brad Will
<https://archive.org/details/infamia_en_oaxaca>, an Indymedia activist who
died with a videocamera in his hands in Oaxaca, Mexico while filming poor
people protesting. Even after the cops shot him in the chest one minute
before the video ends, the camera rolls on.

Indymedia was more than a people’s Internet-based news alternative to the
capitalist media. It was a movement that incorporated many of the ideas
that were prevalent in the Global Justice movement and that continued into
Occupy Wall Street.

With chapters all across the world, Indymedia tried to strike a balance
between local autonomy and group cohesion—no easy matter. Chapter four,
titled “Structure: Networks and Nervous Systems” goes into considerable and
fascinating detail about how young activists tried to develop an
organizational model that was geared to the grass roots movements they
participated in. The chapter begins with a telling epigraph by Alex Ross,
Hillary Clinton’s Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department:
“The Che Guevara for the twenty-first century is the network.”

The chapter begins with some of Wolfson’s brisk reporting on the role
played by Indymedia at the February 15, 2003 protest in Philadelphia
against the war in Iraq. In contrast to the capitalist press that
habitually undercounted the number of protesters and relegated coverage to
the back pages, Indymedia rose to the occasion and provided on-the-spot
reports all across the world. It was this type of response that would
ultimately inspire an outlet like Vice Magazine that despite its rough
around the edges appearance (and ironically perhaps because of it) could
attract billions of dollars from investors. For young people, something
like Vice is the anti-Brian Williams even though the corporations that made
him possible are circling Vice like buzzards, including Rupert Murdoch’s
News Corporation. (We should never forget that Murdoch bought the *Village
Voice* in1977. For him, profits count more than politics.)

Coverage of February 15th was carried out by Independent Media Centers
(IMC), the local group of media activists that were the counterpart of
branches in my Old Left SWP that were controlled down to the tiniest
political and organizational detail by party headquarters in New York. If
someone farted at a meeting in Houston, the national office would conduct
an investigation to expose the smeller. Indymedia was determined to avoid
such a verticalist straightjacket.

The solution was to create a network of IMC’s that had no “national
office”. For those committed to a non-centered network, there are various
options on how to implement it ranging from the relatively centered star
structure (not a star in the sense of Katy Perry but a formation that has a
central hub that distributes information throughout the network) to the all
channel network that lacked a center. Indymedia went with the all channel
network, something that befits the anarchist mood of many of its

A combination of organizational dysfunction and political unclarity led to
a serious crisis in 2002, one that would have long-lasting effects on
Indymedia. It erupted after the Ford Foundation offered a grant intended to
fund regional conferences. When the Argentine IMC heard about this, they
raised bloody hell since the Ford Foundation was in cahoots with the CIA,
responsible for assisting the dictatorship in Argentina that killed tens of
thousands of their countrymen. The Ford Foundation also spent money to
corrupt the Black Panther Party and the Global Justice movement. Reading
this account brought me back to the days of my board membership in Tecnica,
a volunteer program for Nicaragua that relied heavily on foundation grants.
We applied for but never got money from the Ford Foundation. There was
little fear in Tecnica that we would “sell out” since most of the people in
the leadership were case-hardened revolutionary socialists who took
inspiration from Lenin boarding a German imperialist train to return to
Russia in 1917.

But for Indymedia it was an acid test. Instead of grappling with the
political questions of funding, everything turned on the question of
organizational procedure with some arguing against the Argentines on the
basis that the Ford money would go to local chapters. How dare anybody
challenge local autonomy? After months and months of wrangling over the
question on listserv’s, the fight ended with very little sense of a
satisfactory resolution. Ironically, it was the use of the Internet that
frustrated their hopes. The technology might have helped to link people up
across continents but at a certain cost.

One participant in the debate put it this way: “The globe spanning email
lists are mostly useless for this sort of thing. It would be a good thing
to refrain from using them for any sort of conflict resolution. *Face to
face is where life happens. It is real. Virtual life has little power. It
is empty*.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a kind of techno-optimism that
failed to anticipate how such a crisis could develop. Wolfson refers
frequently to Manuel Castells, arguably the most breathlessly enthusiastic
of all the Internet prophets. He is particularly excited by the idea that
the Internet could create the conditions for a “leaderless movement” as if
our problem is leaders rather than influence. Frankly, I miss having
someone around like Martin Luther King Jr. That is obviously why he was

While by no means engaged with technical schemas, Chantal Mouffe and
Ernesto Laclau developed a brand of Marxism that was hospitable to the
horizontalist agenda. They argued that the working class was no longer the
agent of change and proposed “radical democracy” as an alternative to
obsolete notions of socialist revolution. The agent of change would now be
disparate social movements united on the basis of having a common enemy and
deploying a “swarm intelligence” to overcome the elites. It was the
theoretical equivalence of the title of Paul Kingsworth’s study of the
Zapatistas: “One No, Many Yeses”.

Since Mouffe and Laclau, as well as many of those they influenced from John
Holloway to Hardt/Negri, were icons of the new networked movements that
eschewed electoral politics that were regarded as either useless or
reactionary, it is of some interest that they are regarded as the
intellectual forefathers of Syriza and Podemos according to Dan Hancox
whose “Comments are Free
article in the Guardian maintained:

Throughout his academic career, most of which he spent as professor of
political theory at the University of Essex, Laclau developed a vocabulary
beyond classical Marxist thought, replacing the traditional analysis of
class struggle with a concept of “radical democracy” that stretched beyond
the narrow confines of the ballot box (or the trade union). Most
importantly for Syriza, Podemos and its excitable sympathisers outside
Greece and Spain, he sought to rescue “populism” from its many detractors.

The operative term here is “narrow confines of the ballot box”. If you
think in terms of irreconcilable opposites, the growth of Syriza and
Podemos can appear confounding but only if you cannot see their connection
to the street protests that shook Greece and Spain for the better part of a
decade. It was to the everlasting credit of Alexis Tsipras and Pablo
Iglesias to see the need to create parties that could challenge the ruling
class on its own terms, namely the right to control the state on behalf of
the exploited and the dispossessed. The occupations, protests, general
strikes, and even the violent combat in the streets were incapable in and
of themselves of putting people back to work but they were like
bombardments that weakened the enemy’s defenses to the point that its
fortress could be overrun.

Todd Wolfson’s book is a serious and well-researched case for reconnecting
the new network-based movements with older traditions of struggle such as
the labor and civil rights movement with an emphasis on the working class.
While nobody would ever discount the brilliance of populist slogans that
drew a line between the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, as timely
in its way as the Bolshevik’s “Peace, Bread and Land”, the strategic
emphasis must be on building parties that can unite people in struggle
throughout society and ultimately on a global basis.

While most of his book extols the great accomplishments of Indymedia and
the Global Justice movement, he makes sure to put forward his criticisms in
no uncertain terms:

While every cycle of protest comes to an end, it is important to mark the
breakthroughs and the problems with Indymedia and the larger Cyber Left’s
logic of resistance organized around horizontality. The core logic and
strategy of the Cyber Left played a significant role in the inability of
the Global Social Justice Movement to build long-term power. I will point
to four interrelated, core problems: (1) a retreat from class and
capitalism as analytic and political categories, (2) a tendency toward
technological determinism, (3) an anti-institutional bias, (4) no emphasis
on political education and leadership development. The first problem is
that contemporary social-movement theorists and activists of the Cyber Left
tend to downplay capitalism and class as central analytic categories. This
tendency developed because of the perceived problems with the praxis of
Marxism as it operated in actually existing communist nations and communist
and socialist movements.

As someone who has written numerous articles on the actually existing
socialist movements, including for CounterPunch, I will end this article on
a contrarian note and defend Lenin, a symbol for many of everything that is
wrong with “verticalism”. To a large part, this is not poor Lenin’s fault
but the fault of those who created the monstrosity called “Leninism”.

Earlier in this article I referred to Hilary Clinton’s aide describing the
network as the Che Guevara of the twenty-first century, which taken at face
value might encourage young leftists to sign up for Microsoft training
classes posthaste. In fact, it was Che Guevara’s mistake to schematically
apply rural guerrilla warfare as if Cuba could be cloned in Bolivia.

This is the same mistake that was made with “Leninism”. For nearly eighty
years the left tried to imitate Lenin’s party, even to the point of
incorporating an iconography that made no sense to an American worker. What
would a hammer and sickle mean to someone working on a computer-controlled
lathe or in the cab of a five-ton John Deere tractor?

Lenin had essentially the same problem in the early 1900s that the left has
a century later, namely how to organize the scattered radical movement into
a formidable power that could confront and ultimately defeat the enemy. His
hope was that a newspaper called Iskra could do the job. Referring to the
need for a newspaper that was nation-wide in scope, he wrote in “What is to
be Done”:

Does this not clearly illustrate our amateurism? Does this not clearly show
that our revolutionary organisation lags behind the spontaneous growth of
the movement? If the same number of issues had been published, not by
scattered local groups, but by a single organisation, we would not only
have saved an enormous amount of effort, but we would have secured
immeasurably greater stability and continuity in our work.

If Lenin were alive today, I doubt that he would go near any left group
that had hammers and sickles festooning their newspaper or website. It is
also likely that he would also avoid any described as “Marxist-Leninist”.
He would probably warn against the use of a newspaper when the Internet was
available, especially when the class enemy was also moving away from print.

But the priority would be on uniting people and not on technological
determinism as if Facebook pages could ever take the place of a well
organized and politically steeled working class. They certainly will
interpenetrate each other on the long, difficult but necessary task of
abolishing private ownership of the means of production but in the final
analysis it is the unified and class-conscious workers movement that will
change history.

Check out the Commons Transition Plan here at:

P2P Foundation: http://p2pfoundation.net  - http://blog.p2pfoundation.net

http://twitter.com/mbauwens; http://www.facebook.com/mbauwens

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