“The new technology underpins our ability to be able to be at the same time more individualistic and more collective; it shapes our consciousness, magnifies the crucial driver of all revolutions – the perceived difference between what could be and what is.”
Paul Mason, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’, 2012
What is it to be revolutionary if not ideological? The importance of this question should not be underestimated; especially in what Paul Mason describes as the ‘the network revolution’ in his new book, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’. Criticisms for being ideological – often rendered as being obsessed with dogma – are levied at those who dare to conceive the ‘what could be’ that Mason is speaking of above. As the capitalist crisis – or at least its latest incarnation – threatens the material conditions of those more attuned to the years of boom, these criticisms are brought more and more by those who would seek a reformist or reactionary solution when faced with the self-destruction of capitalism. The strange thing is, in Mason’s analysis, the revolutionaries and the disavowers of ideology are one in the same, proclaiming ‘I had no politics. I still don’t subscribe to any’. This is your modern day revolutionary of Tahrir, Athens, New York or London. The networked individual.
What does it mean to be this individual? Mason provides an image familiar to some:
“If you’ve ever seen somebody transfixed by their BlackBerry in the middle of a riot, you’ve seen a networked individual.”
This immediately reminds one of the Arab spring, the London student demonstrations and the riots of August 2011. In all of these instances technology played its part in allowing crowds to organise effectively when they were on the street, but also in how it mediated their relationships before the protest even began. Mason argues that the net has allowed people who had been led to believe that they were only self-interested individuals by neo-liberalism – Thatcher of course spewed: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women”– that they were in fact capable of taking collective action. It however also brings about an understanding of wider social relations – ones of power, authority and exploitation. Mason quotes Manuel Castells as saying:
“The emergence of mass self-communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects.”
Manuel Castells, ‘Communication, Power and Counter-power’
Can we conceive of anything more frightening for a state than those with an understanding of exploitative social relations and the means to take collective action against them?
However, there is another common characteristic of the networked individual – the rejection of ideology. The network can give one an understanding of negative power relations and even the means to organise collectively to challenge these. Yet, struggles purely characterised by the individual’s antagonism towards authority contextualised by non-hierarchical web networks rather than a – dare I say – dogmatic critique of society are clearly somewhat problematic. Let us take as an example the Occupy movement. In its first incarnation as Occupy Wall Street – which itself had drawn on the tented square meme seen in Tahrir and Spain earlier in 2011 – it represented individuals and groups of individuals such as Anonymous leaving – or perhaps simply taking with them – the organisational space of the net in order to take collective action in the flesh. This of course, mediated by the network, soon became a global movement. In its language it identifies the authority it seeks to challenge, the 1%, but there is a distinct lack of critique beyond this. As Mason points out:
“… the networked protest has a better chance of achieving its basic goals because it is congruent with the economic and technological conditions of modern society – it mirrors social life, financial structures and production patterns. It speaks to the mental conceptions that flow from the networked life we live. And to an extent, as we will see, it is satisfied with the conquest of space within the system rather than seeking to smash the system.”
This description of the networked protest sounds hauntingly like the Occupy movement and to my mind is why movements defined solely by the politics of ‘the network’ are dangerous. Clearly, the tented city protest has gained popularity – and success if you would define it in those terms – but, without a fully developed conception of class systems and antagonisms the Occupy movement has had to satisfy its search for an enemy in creating the 1% caricature. Further, in mirroring the ‘social life, financial structures and production patterns’ of what we currently have, it simply perpetuates social relations such as capitalism and patriarchy, never challenging them and quickly moving to the least antagonistic position: ‘Democratise Capitalism’ . If a movement is to create an alternative society, as Occupy has attempted to do, it cannot be one developed in the image of the broken and disturbed one it seeks to provide an alternative for; it is otherwise doomed to negate itself faster than what becomes the host society rather than the enemy. Without what is often termed as ‘ideology’ this is inevitable.
Mason draws attention to the French Marxist André Gorz, to find a definition for revolution that may be pertinent when looking at networked protests. It demonstrates precisely why these are not revolutionary – at least when it comes to redefining social relations:
“Taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through development of an alternative network of relations”.
André Gorz, ‘Farewell to the Working Class’, p.64
Those holding out for the revolution the Occupy movement will bring are in for a short wait before it soon destroys itself, but what of the other ‘networked revolutions’ that we saw in 2011? The Egyptian revolution, whilst removing Hosni Mubarak and improving conditions through this, suffers from the same problem as Occupy in that it does not develop any alternative social relations. The Egyptians will likely continue to suffer under systems of oppression and exploitation. There has been no liberation from the capitalist means of production and there shall continue to be patriarchy. It is unreasonable to presume that alternative social relations shall develop from social movements that simply seek to challenge authority or power in its caricatured – or perhaps in the case of Hosni Mubarak, personified – form, but we should recognise that unless we are ideological about our approach to social change, we are doomed to rehash the very things we seek to destroy.
Is it an inherent part of networked revolutions and protests to be adverse to ideology to the detriment of any real change? The network of course only facilitates our ability to take collective action – this is partly why movements that spring from it allow themselves to reproduce without coherent critiques – and is therefore subject to the will of the actors involved. It is not hard to conceive that a network that can help normalise non-hierarchical means of organising can also allow for the development of the alternative social relations necessary for the societal change that we desire. The much loved form of dissemination of ideas for radicals on the internet is of course the anonymous communiqué which is often free of the adoration awarded to the theorists ideologies tend to draw upon. Mason himself cites a number of these in his book and for the ‘networked individual’ who “would rather read new stuff” than the Negri, Debord, Foucault or even Marx that ideologues may do, there is nothing to say that the huge amounts of user generated content produced on the net each day do not provide valuable resources for forming a coherent ideology.
The network is not an enemy of ideology, but networks with no ideology are certainly enemies of the consciousness required for revolution. Ideologues who believe they have developed the alternative social relations required for revolution must of course use the net and share these; it has become impossible not to. Whilst ideology may be the change that you want to bring about, it has become clear the only way to move towards achieving it through collective action is to go where social movements are now brought together: the net. Similarly, one must be fully conscious of the difference between ‘what should be and what is’ if they are to do anything but aid in the reproduction of age old – and corrosive – social relations. It is in the amalgamation of these two – the network and the ideology – that you will realise the destruction of vulgar social relations.