Politics and the culture of the web

Pirate Party motto: "Prepare to change"

Pirate Party motto: “Prepare to change”

The latest issue of The Economist carries a longish essay on “The new politics of the internet” – in essence suggesting that web activism today may be at a take-off point, comparable to the birth of the environmental movement after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962.  The essay lists bits and pieces of web-focused political activity around the globe, then asks a ponderous question:  “might the world really be witnessing . . . the creation of another such movement – this one built around the potential for new information technology to foster free speech and innovation, and the threats that governments and companies pose to it?”

The examples cited of successful web activism are almost entirely negative.  They include aborting the International Telecommunication Union’s attempt to impose by treaty government controls on the web, the defeat of property-rights restrictions in the US and Europe, the delay of plans to erect a national firewall in Pakistan.  The only positive triumph, if that is the word for it, pertains to the rise of the Pirate Party in Germany – and even here, the Economist admits that the party’s popularity with the public has collapsed since its electoral victories in the annus mirabilis of 2011.

Opposition is in the DNA of web politics, and this provides a valid parallel with the environmental movement.  Both have been most successful when they stand against.  Environmentalists made nuclear energy politically radioactive, and turned “climate change” into a powerful symbolic argument against industrial society.  But unlike, say, the fascist and Marxist-Leninist parties of the twentieth century – all of which began in opposition – the Greens have been unable to put forward a vision of governance persuasive either to voters or to authoritarians.

Web and environmental activism sprang from the same ground, but developed into quite distinct organisms.  In Douglas and Wildavsky’s terminology, the two movements are sects of the border, in eternal revolt against the political and cultural center.  They exist to oppose, but they organize to model righteousness rather than to maximize the chances of political success.  Hence the difficulty in implementing a positive program.

The difference is that environmentalism is a real movement.  It has a largely unspoken but coherent ideology, composed in equal parts of Malthus, Rousseau, and Marx.  This ideology raises a sharp barrier between those on the inside and those on the outside of the movement.  It also allows semi-hierarchical organizations like the Sierra Club to wave the Green flag and maintain the pose of revolt, while raising enormous sums of money.  In 50 years, environmentalist institutions have moved much closer to the center than their adherents would admit – certainly closer than the obscure groups (“Access Now”) which campaigned against the ITU treaty.

Web politics, conversely, are nothing like a movement.  The web is a culture with many mansions, happy to accommodate mutually hostile ideologies – from ferocious capitalism to destructive anarchism – as well as endless causes floating in a near-vacuum of ideas.  The culture of the web isn’t exactly devoid of barriers.  It hates slickness, for example.  It mocks leaders, accredited authorities, intermediaries, owners of content.  It disdains the old established institutions, those “weary giants of flesh and steel,” and demands a harsh egalitarianism.  Possibly for this reason, it has often meted out punishment to cause-mongers, like the hapless producers of “Kony 2012,” whose messages attained viral popularity.

But these are commandments of taste and style:  at most, for a prickly attitude toward authority.  Not surprisingly, those in positions of authority, accustomed to preaching to an inert “mass” audience, have rarely found the right language and tone to exploit the web politically.  But insurgents of every stripe – from Muslim Brothers in Syria to the anarchistic Pirates in Germany to the hopeful Barack Obama of 2008 – have wielded new media to alter the information balance of power with established elites.

This ideological openness is the secret to the web’s enormous disruptive capacity.  Every ruler and every existing institution is vulnerable to attack from any direction.  To join the revolt, you don’t need to sign a pledge.  You just need a cell phone.  The controversies over state and corporate control of content agitating the Economist are mere skirmishes on the edge of a colossal struggle, which has left the ground littered with the carcasses of once-proud narratives justifying authority.  And the fight has scarcely begun.

Because the insurgents have stayed true to their sectarian origins, their successes tend to be victories of negation.  Mighty despots have fallen, venerable hierarchies have been confounded; but unintended consequences have prevailed.  Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook group ignited the protests which overthrew Hosni Mubarak, consciously refused to become a leader or spokesman for the secular forces which had led the revolution.  Into that empty space moved the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization structured along the lines of a 1930s mass movement:  top down.  Similarly, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks made a mockery of the US government’s security and foreign affairs bureaucracies, releasing reams of classified cables to the public.  Yet the revelations had little discernible effect on US policies, much less on Assange’s great Satan, global capitalism.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange

Barack Obama, twice elected to the presidency, might seem to be an exception to this rule.  I believe otherwise.  The Obama who was embraced by the online culture in 2008 – and whose campaign brilliantly worked digital media for funds, volunteers, and messaging – ran as an insurgent St. George, tilting at the establishments of both political parties.  He stood firmly against, and promised transformation of a generic, non-ideological sort, allowing the many mansions of the web to converge on his candidacy.  This coalition did not survive the president’s need to make policy decisions and transact with the orthodox forces of American politics.

By 2012, President Obama had become, inevitably, the most important figure in our political establishment; and I would argue that the weight of persuasion on behalf of his reelection was carried less by online activists who saw him as a shining knight than by a mostly friendly, wholly establishmentarian mass media.  In the event, the president reverted to a theme of revolt.  He attacked Mitt Romney on a long list of generic social and class issues, and argued that the Republican represented the true, if corrupt, ruling clique – a remarkable rhetorical stance for a president.  His success is certain to inspire future incumbents, but had no more connection to a governing program or ideology than did his candidacy in 2008.

The Economist’s suggestion of a global web movement singing kumbaya around a campfire of “free speech and innovation” strikes me as fatuous.  The reality of digital activism is far more potent than that.  It is also more destructive.  It has made governing much harder for despots and democrats alike.  Everywhere the opposition is in command of the lines of communication, and seeks to become identical with the public at large:  it is willing to revolt, reject, and condemn, while unburdened by the pressure to find practical alternatives.  In politics – as in so many domains of social life – the Fifth Wave of information has ushered in an age of negation.

President Obama and the media

President Obama and the media

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