On the plane to New York I was reading an interesting article in the Economist on The Politics of The Internet, that asked the question whether Internet activism could develop into a ‘real political movement’. It was an interesting sentence construction, one that presupposed how politics should work, and that the real effect of significant change may not be within the system – in the form of a political party, one that spans borders – but with the system itself. For example, open source software should not succeed at all based on the market based assumptions of equity distribution. It succeeds in spite of the system, not because of it. At the same time, I’m reading Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, notwithstanding his pathological fear of footnotes.
The Economist article compares Internet activism to the Green movement of the 1960’s, and in particular its sense of ecology and interconnectedness. At the heart of both is the notion of the commons, this shared space and set of shared resources that we as as a cosmopolitan race need to protect. It’s interesting how in Britain, the Tory-led Commons is currently under siege for being elitist, unrepresentative, and posh, while its original design was to represent those not represented by the Lords, which was elitist, unrepresentative, and posh.
The Commons seems to be to be anti-capitalist, or at least pro-communist; as a concept, it certainly has strong echoes of socialism. The Green movement, and now Internet Activism, seem to be anti-establishment and counter cultural not merely in the sense that conventional liberal democracy is polluting the planet (for the Greens) and strangling open networking through regulation (for the hactivists). These core unifying belief systems act as strong nuclei attracting other causes that are generally critical of the extremes of liberal democracy, such as the banking crisis, corruption, and social justice.
A major movement that seems not to have been mentioned, but that appears at least to have some of the characteristics of a global political movement, is the Labour movement. Over one hundred years old now, the movement has found itself struggling to maintain relevance through Globalisation and the changing nature of work. The legalisation of unions created strong, well funded platforms in many countries that persisted through the fall of communism, but that could not maintain that success through the post-communist (post-1989) rise of capitalism. It strikes me that there should be some answers here to questions of global politics.
Meanwhile, reading Zizek I came to a fascinating section on page 91. In the book, he argues that Communism, or The Communist Hypothesis (as distinct from the Capitalist, or Liberal Democratic ideal) persists as a reaction to the antagonisms of what has become conventional government (it’s a Marxist thing). Zizek puts it thus (his emphasis):
There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and last, but not least, the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums.
Zizek also makes the point that revolution never happens when one antagonism blows up, but only when many of them ‘synergetically combine their power’ (p.89). Taking each in turn, first of all the Green movement continues to attract followers, as major weather events become major stories – such as the Tsunamis (Japan, Indian Ocean), Earthquakes (Japan, Haiti) and Hurricanes (Katrina, Sandy) of recent years. There is an imperative for change, but one that lingers in the low single digits in most polls if isolated; Green Parties have success when they develop broad social platforms and mature economic policy; that is, they normalise their position. Arguably that could be defined as defeat for the Green position, as they are forced to go vote hunting, and Green becomes more important as brand than as policy.
The antagonism of intellectual property is played out in the patent courts, the debates over the patent cliff, the online privacy and copyright battles, and the clear disdain for intellectual property as a concept coming out of China. While it is staggering to think about what our economy would look like without intellectual property protection, we have only to look at how open source has thrived despite a lack of conventional incentive structures.
While Zizek is concerned particularly with biogenetics in his antagonism of technology, I suspect the Internet and Internet Activism (anonymous and others) may have an equally large say. A few years ago, I wrote about how artificial intelligence might be theorised about backwards – machines weren’t becoming more human, but, rather, humans were becoming more like machines. We are becoming more and more dependent on the Internet and connected applications all the time.
Zizek’s fourth and final antagonism is on new apartheid. I commented on this blog recently in a post about the Informal State about how one projection forecasts that two thirds of the world’s workers will be ‘off-grid’ by 2020 – that’s people who don’t pay taxes, and who ignore borders and international structures, predominantly (though not exclusively) in developing markets. Concurrently there is the growing gap between rich and poor in developed countries. There are enormous differences emerging between these groups, and while the elites tend to have significant control over the instruments of force, their legitimate claim to those resources is being seriously undermined by the evolution of this new disconnected class.
While Zizek discusses terrorism in the earlier part of the book, and may well do so in the rest of the book that I have not yet read, it seems that that might have been a fifth antagonism; I guess it could be read that terrorism is merely the expression of antagonism. But surely the undermining of a State’s ability to protect its citizens is antagonistic towards the status quo? So Al Qa’eda’s attack on 9/11 could be viewed as a manifestation of the new apartheid, perhaps.
The Labour Movement is fading, just as conventional work structures disappear; the Green movement is maturing; and the Internet Activism domain is hitting puberty. Can these things come together? On a national level, could the Labour Party merge with the Greens, and the Pirate Party? Do they have enough in common? Is it possible for them to develop an identity that is post-democratic, post-liberal? And are these movements truly cosmopolitan, truly global? Time will tell.