China’s great firewall: the internet can be censored, blocked and manipulated

Fetishising the web

The left needs a comprehensive, partyist approach to media, argues Paul Demarty

“The world, my friend, can be divided into two parts,” says Eli Wallach’s Tuco in the classic western, The good, the bad and the ugly. The specific dividing line, naturally, moves about - there is always a new way to cleave humanity into two.

Yet there is a common thread: the division is always between crafty types, like Tuco, and the dull ordinary minds, who exist to be robbed of their money or their daughters’ virtue, or to be killed in the smart bandit’s place. Eventually, Blondie - the ‘Good’ - offers his own variation to Tuco, tossing him a spade. The world is divided into those with guns, and those who dig.

Likewise, the left is divided, and redivided, into two parts. Reformist and revolutionary; anarchist and ‘statist’; old and new. In today’s world, one rather more concrete division suggests itself - between those who conduct their media operations entirely on the internet, and those who publish a physical paper.

So far as the left goes, two recent events suggest this as a topic for debate: firstly, that paragon of online-onlyism, Momentum, recently concluded a ‘consultation’ on “improving our democracy”, whereupon it was discovered that an overwhelming majority of those “consulted” agreed completely with the group’s proprietor, and democracy was to be “improved” by such measures as the less frequent elections of officers. The other was the formal liquidation of the paper, Socialist Resistance, which was the organ of the right-opportunist Trotskyist group of the same name. In the same period, SR has rebranded itself from a revolutionary organisation to an “anti-capitalist network”, which may or may not be related to the need to protect its members from the tender affections of the Labour Party machine (for instance, comrade Fred Leplat, who was suspended last year, but later reinstated). It is notable that SR has not stated formally that it has ceased publishing a physical paper: it just does not do so any more.


But there are other reasons for discussing the matter, which have to do with wider society: principally the changing fortunes of the internet in the estimation of the bourgeois establishment. Having been a great cause for optimism about the future, in a post-crash era not noted for such bright tidings, the internet - and its primary mass consumer platforms - is now condemned for poisoning the political culture of the west with ‘extremism’, allowing ‘the Russians’ to interfere with ‘our’ institutions, and even abetting genocide. Given the fact that the principal political beneficiaries of the changes blamed on Facebook and co are on the far right, it is unavoidably the case that this unease will spread into the left. Moreover, recent events - in Sudan, Hong Kong and elsewhere - have suggested that the web is not so very much the pirate utopia it once seemed.

The advantages of the internet as a medium (and we will primarily discuss here its role in spreading information to human readers, as opposed to, say, industrial control, automated financial arbitrage or any of the other innumerable applications of pervasive IT networks) are, to a certain extent, obvious. I wrote this article using a cloud-based service that allowed me to jump between computers; you are almost certainly reading it on the web. The reach of the web is simply unimaginably wider than a small-run physical publication ever could be - and the cost of publication is far lower. This is, all told, a pretty good deal.

It is worth underlining this precisely because of the multiplying moral panics about the deleterious consequences of the social-media age. By massively reducing barriers to publication and making available vast treasures of historical culture effectively for free, the internet is a priceless asset for humanity; the moral panics are ultimately a kind of fetishism, whereby the political decrepitude of the bourgeois establishment is projected onto a technological apparatus - we will have more to say about this later.

There are arguments more strongly in favour of internet media than this, however. We have merely said that the relative ease of finding an outlet for one’s thoughts, and the expansion of access to human culture, are good in themselves. Even if we had already achieved communism, they would be so; and they would too, even if the panicked nightmares of the ‘antifa’ were realised, and the modern breed of fascist trolls actually took power and embarked on mass murder, using such means.

There is also the view that mass internet media has an inherently anti-hierarchical effect in society. In a leftwing context, this is ultimately a Bakuninist idea. The problem of anarchism has not primarily been its ineffectuality - frankly, we have all been a little ineffectual lately - but the difficulty of finding a workable replacement to the classic organising methods of the workers’ movement for political action: that is, parties. Bakunin himself was reduced to conspiratorial cliquery; there followed attempts to institute specific forms of trade unionism as an alternative, but these ended up foundering on the same problems as the parties (accountability of leadership to the rank and file and, most sharply, participation in government, as posed by the Spanish civil war in 1936). Those were succeeded by closely-knit affinity groups, which again faced the same issues.

The internet-age ‘new left’ (as opposed to the post-1968 iteration) had as its classic political tactic the flash mob. The sheer speed of internet communication allowed, say, an activist to merely mention a location on Twitter and a hundred or so people might turn up with banners and megaphones within half an hour. The police could be outfoxed, unauthorised marches rerouted on a sixpence. The point of a party, surely, was to make sure everybody got the message at the right time (certainly that seems to be what the Socialist Workers Party thinks is the point of a party). As opposed to such command-and-control micromanagement, the speed of modern communication, its polymorphously perverse flow between high, melodramatic seriousness and low humour, its demonic multiplication of individual voices, was a much more effective and humane way of achieving the same thing.

Indeed, what the left techno-utopians have in common with the communisateurs, and in fact many of their forebears, is a rhetorical tactic of saying that old forms of organisation have been rendered obsolete by some economic or technological development. For communisation, that catastrophe came some time in the early 1970s, which corresponds suspiciously closely with the particular biographies of the small clutch of 68ers who started it all off; for the techno-utopians, the decentralisation of culture and - at the more basic economic level - accelerating automation would do the job.

Basic politics

But in the end this is the exact same problem of fetishism as indulged in by the panic-mongers. Just as it was not ‘the internet’ that gave us the new far right (as opposed to its particular accidental forms and in-jokes), ‘the internet’ does not give us ‘new’ movements like Occupy, Podemos and so on. The movements alluded to above burned out rapidly, as they - again - faced the same choices as ever about basic politics.

In so far as there is a post-Occupy political expression extant in the United States, it is surely the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ highly effective campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and thus essentially a project for a reformist government; moreover, the DSA has had that name for close to 40 years, but was originally a splinter of the Shachtmanites, as they tore themselves to pieces over the cold war. It was the right wing of the ‘old’ new left. Podemos, likewise, turns out to be yet another willing junior partner in social-liberal governments (and was clearly heading that way from the beginning), with worse internal democratic norms than ‘traditional parties’. (Likewise with Momentum, which is merely a limited company, with online voting as a fig leaf of democracy to conceal its entirely capitalist management structure.)

The fetishism also tends to obscure the extent to which the nature of the internet, as we actually encounter it, is determined by the overarching historical epoch of declining capitalism. The heavy-handed use of state power by China, Erdoğan’s Turkey and so on to censor the internet, and the shamefaced compliance of the great internet media companies (Google, Facebook, etc) with these initiatives, are a particularly vulgar sign of this epoch’s essence: as capitalism’s laws of motion decline, the role of the state in it becomes ever greater, and the private and public bureaucracies both fuse and mingle together. When social media was on the upswing, it was discovered - deliberately or by accident - that the most compulsive and therefore valuable users were anxious, and so the apps were, like cigarettes, designed for addiction. Fear and envy sold more ad-space.

There is now an intense backlash, and the beginnings of a serious regulatory push. In some restricted sense, much of this is supportable: human culture would not be worse off if determined action broke apart Facebook and Google. Underlying all this, however, is a process of bringing everyone to heel. The state increasingly demands a say in what may be published; and facing down that threat remains a battle to be fought at the level of the state. The idea that internet media might allow us to obviate that need is rather fanciful.

Now, let us consider the humble leftwing paper.

The most famous hymn to its praise is Lenin’s What is to be done?, whereby a plan for a political agitation organ is the crystallisation of the Iskra faction’s vision for the infant Russian Social Democratic Labour Party - from a group of well-meaning amateurs in small circles easily crushed by the tsar’s police, it must become a national organisation with deep roots in the working class and political answers for all the masses. In the back of Lenin’s mind, surely, was the ‘red postal service’ of the German Social Democratic Party, which nullified half of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws and saw it emerge as the pre-eminent opposition force to the kaiser regime.

Producing such a thing at all, never mind to a high standard, requires serious discipline and effort. It is, of course, quite possible to apply serious discipline and effort to publishing a website, and the results are usually better than the alternative; but it is not necessary. It is not inherently habit-forming and cohering. Even the writing is likely to be better, simply because the need to fit things on a physical sliver of dead tree enforces some economy of wording. It is no small advantage for the paper, also, that in order to slip absently into scrolling through Instagram, you need to put it down. The abandonment of all this is too often an uncritical adoption of the methods of modern marketing; and so, my friends, the world is divided into two parts …

There are two lessons of all this. Firstly, it is straightforwardly obvious that a physical paper cannot substitute for a website. You cannot shove it down a fibre-optic cable to Zanzibar. It is not so obvious, but no less true, that a website cannot substitute for a physical paper; not even the digitised contents of that paper on its website can. As a centre of party discourse, a means of organisational coherence, even merely as a ‘costly display’ - an outward symbol of seriousness and sacrifice - it scratches the itches the web cannot reach.

Secondly, the multiplication of media, and the apparently infinite media environment of the web, show up the left’s current efforts as a little on the substandard side. What we need is not overtheorisations of technological change, but a comprehensive challenge to the dominance of the capitalist media - and all of them, from radio to search engines. The left’s lack of ambition on this front, alas, remains all too obvious.