Virtual revolution

Print edition : July 11, 2014
On the dynamics of social upheavals spurred through the agency of social media.

GLOBAL movements, like political interventions, have reflected both a decisive contribution and an engagement with fundamental democratic institutions at specific historical moments, over the last 50 years. The co-opted intellectual has been the main support of dictatorial anti-democratic regimes where state violence is legitimised as a public or national necessity.

Oppressive domestic and foreign policies never enjoy a peaceful journey. The infringement of fundamental rights, of justice and equality, of the desire for the fulfilment of one’s basic needs, have always provoked revolutions. The Christian pacifist notion of brotherhood and “offering the other cheek” has been more of a theoretical practice that underpins a religious sentiment but which Nietzsche rejects as the subservience to a herd mentality that chooses survival over dissent. From the path-breaking Zapatista movement to the rise of anti-imperial leftist thinking in Latin America, from student strikes in London against fee hike to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, from Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen to the Wall Street, freedom-loving people have almost simultaneously risen in acts of resistance that have caused many heads to roll.

It is often maintained that revolutions in the days of the Internet will not be learnt and theorised in libraries, but will be spurred through the agency of social media and television, “beamed directly into our heads”. The growth of social media and the collapse of the neoliberal economics have combined to give an impetus to a new brand of rebels who ideologically are hostile to structures of power. This is, broadly, the central argument in Paul Mason’s Why It’s Still Kicking off Everywhere.

However, one can argue that the role of social media in the revolutionary movements has been exaggerated. Though Twitter and Facebook are results of the game-changing technology of reaching millions instantaneously, they cannot be the only force behind a revolution. Undoubtedly, the page started by Wael Ghonim in Egypt became the rallying point, but it was not exclusively responsible for quickening the protest. Indeed, beyond the mere inundation of messaging lies considerable thought and action of far more human significance. A digital existence of a simulated world in virtual contact cannot be enough. The cyborgian perspective does anticipate a milieu of solidarity and sharing, but it ends in extinguishing the spark of activism in the face of visuals or messages.

Arguably, live presence on the street becomes the actual revolutionary thrust, a face-to-face confrontation that does not exist in the hyper reality of the cyberspace. Armchair digital activism has to be rendered into a political movement through other channels of substantial human interchange. According to Mason, the use of social media “challenges the old methods: parties, trade unions, leaders, hierarchies” by forming “horizontal” social networks that “zap the enemy” by “swarming” it and then disband. Thus, people come together only for a purpose until it is achieved, and subsequently, do not have the urge to form parties or trade unions that can have a lasting impact.

Though the world-wide web may have spurred a revolutionary fervour, what makes revolutions an agency of change is the appearance of the masses on the street, the human touch, the history-making acts of courage and solidarity. In moving from the idea to active participation, a revolution is born, giving rise to dissident youth, the rebellious working class, and the exasperated underprivileged struggling to create a liberated space within oneself. Mason argues against Karl Marx’s conception of the working class seeking its liberation followed by the liberation of the world. The alternative he envisages is the concept of “human” liberation won by individuals without offering any opposition to capitalist social relations.

“Is it now possible,” he asks, “to conceive of living this ‘emancipated’ life as a fully connected ‘species-being’ on the terrain of capitalism itself—indeed on the terrain of a highly marketised form of capitalism, albeit in conflict with it?”Though this liberation can be achieved through the newfangled technologies, it still paradoxically remains an existence of subservience to the culture industry and its accompanying gizmos thrown at the public by the capitalist who endlessly uses labour that struggles to get its freedom and yet continues to serve the industry for survival. Emancipation can be arrived at only when, like the Zapatistas, people begin to overcome the desire of material acquisition and the Western brand of neoliberalism.

Though he has written on various resistance movements, Mason emphasises and particularly elaborates on the revolution in Egypt where the birth of collective action of the public overwhelmed the powerful state apparatus. He has become an acknowledged voice in the global media, especially owing to his bold and urgent reportage and analysis, which refuses to succumb to the corporate-controlled media.

Mason shares his experiences as a BBC journalist, covering the recent events in Europe, West Asia and North Africa —such as the emergence of the Occupy Movement and the tumult of the Arab Spring—behind which we see the rise of a new rebellious consciousness, both political and economic, together with the impact of social networking that has stimulated mass uprisings. It is not a book on social or political science; it remains a piece of journalism without any pretence to sclerotic theorisation. Mason argues: “The book makes no claim to be a theory of everything, linking LulzSec to global warming and key dates in the Mayan calendar. And don’t file it under ‘social science’: it’s journalism.”

The essays are engaging as Mason gives his eyewitness account from the front line at Tahrir Square, at the Greek Parliament’s storming by anti-austerity protesters and students occupying the Milbank Tower in Cairo, at the homeless shelter in New Mexico and the slums of Manila . They are written with a deep sense of history and with utmost optimism that does not cave in to the triumphalism of capitalism, a fact that has often been a source of discouragement to activists from the Left. “The key problem,” Mason writes, “was spelled out by the theorist Fredric Jameson in 2003: ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’”Nevertheless, the economic meltdown of 2008 gave more hope to a world that had gradually turned cynical in the face of the successes of capitalism.

The birth of a generation of radicals, firmly linked digitally, gives the present generation an idea of a “networked revolution” that became a harbinger of a global revolt. Mason argues: “I cannot help believing that in the revolutions of 2011 we’ve begun to see the human archetypes that will shape the twenty-first century. They effortlessly multi-task, they are ironic, androgynous sometimes, seemingly engrossed in their bubble of music—but they are sometimes prepared to sacrifice their lives and freedom for the future.” Mason combines his first-hand experience and anecdotes with his engagingly clear and incisive analysis of contemporary struggles in the face of a dark scenario of violence and exploitation by the rich and the powerful who unscrupulously throw to the wind any concerns about human rights or climate change. His description of a strike in London is rather vivid and amusing:

“At the point of the wedge, alongside the estate youth, are the self-styled ‘Book Bloc’. They’ve gone into battle in green helmets with mattress-sized mock-ups of book covers: Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Negative Dialectics by Theodore Adorno; Debord, of course; and—for levity—the tales of an unruly school kid, Just William by Richmal Crompton. They’ve copied this tactic from a group of Italian students, who are at the same moment lobbing firebombs into the side-streets of Rome.”

The rebellion is against the drive for power and profit, which is the ruling ideology of a neoliberal economic and social world where the Wall Street savagely pitches itself against the “Main Street”, the 1 per cent confronting the 99 per cent. It is an uprising against the corporate-controlled machinery with its nexus with the security-surveillance state. Central to the cultural industry and matters of hegemony are modes of manufacturing consent, the determining of identities, and the shaping of desire, which stand in opposition to rebellious social and political subjectivities. Modes of oppression are often camouflaged by an ideology that assumes a democratic facade. Reality and illusion operate conjointly to hold out the promise of democracy while focussing on a neoliberal and individualistic philosophy that gives a damn for any community feeling.

Mason tries to return to the question of solidarity and collective resistance that buttresses global movements struggling to usher in an era of true democratic institutions necessary for a liberated world. The intellectual has to realise these ideals and understand that resistance to any subversion of such aims is necessary for any social and political transformation.

Talking about the birth of new radicals, Mason quotes a young girl at the heart of the protest in Cairo: “Someone who knows nothing about history, the opposition, nothing about freedom in Egypt and how it’s been suppressed—because I’ve been so disconnected—you see all these people around you chanting the same thing and it triggers something in your mind…. You see people running towards the police, hurling bricks at them —and wow: the normal scenario would be to run away. I went home and I told my mother—I am not myself. I am somebody new that was born today.”

Young revolutionaries in Egypt and elsewhere, already mobilised by the Internet, could not possibly let the decisive moment pass, a moment when freedom-loving people get the opportunity to rise against torture, inequality, hunger, corruption and unemployment, and more than anything else, the bankruptcy of free-market economics.

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