Leveling the playing field: horizontal politics, technology and activism in 2011 (part 1)

In a new five-part series, Chris Browne takes a look at contemporary trends and potential trajectories in UK activism, analysing the relationship between digital technology and horizontal decision-making practices in 2011.

Old Newspapers
Media for a bygone era: news print is becoming irrelevant in an instant access, digital age

I came in late to the packed-out SOAS meeting room on Thursday 27th January, where a debate had been scheduled between Laurie Penny, the anarcho-feminist and New Statesman columnist, and Ed Maltby of the Workers’ Liberty organisation. The tube had been awash with commuters, and the labyrinth of an unfamiliar institution had conspired against a punctual appearance. The activist’s propensity towards lateness is fortunately universal, however, so I got there in time to grab some cake and a seat in the front row before the speeches began.

A lot of people had expected Ed Maltby to wipe the floor with Laurie; not because of any superior analysis, but because of an audience on his side, and a demeanour betraying a background in debate procedure and argumentation. In the end, Laurie’s supporters need not have worried. She spoke fluently and convincingly, and the discussion was constructive. Certainly it was less adversarial than expected, as it didn’t entirely degenerate into a ‘Horizontals’ vs. ‘Verticals’ mud-slinging.

The usual conceitedness was definitely in evidence in the perverse alpha-male type display, typical of socialist gatherings, of ‘who can quote most voluminously from dead, white men?’ But the narcissism of small differences notwithstanding –for surely this is a timeless feature of the Left-, it was definitely a debate rooted in 2011. This is a wonderful thing, too, as it’s not uncommon to emerge from these cloistered meeting rooms half convinced that it is in fact the nineteenth century; that a workers’ movement actually exists, so rooted in the language and debates of an irrelevant past can these discussions be.

A big part of the debate hinged around technology, and the revolutionary potential of the internet and new social media and networking. Naturally always a few months behind on the latest sociological or anthropological zeitgeist, there has been a recent explosion of interest in this subject in academia: Joss Hands’ @ is for Activism, (Pluto Press, 2010) is one example in a burgeoning field of literature on non-hierarchical radical politics. The whole debate is timely and of immense interest, beyond the usual suspects of activists and academics.

As Laurie Penny said in the SOAS debate, “the media are very excited about the internet because they’re scared of it… Because they think it’s going to take their jobs –which it is.”

I couldn’t scribble as fast as the speakers in that room were able to speak, but a salient point came across, the essence of which was this:

We don’t yet know the end game with new technologies. Right now we’re in the eye of the storm in terms of technical change. The impact of the printing press is perhaps the only other example in history of the truly revolutionary potential of technology. In the case of printing, when we reached a critical mass of people reading and becoming more and more educated we had the Enlightenment; we got the King and chopped off his head.

We haven’t yet reached this critical point with the internet. Not quite everyone is on it and using it in the same way. Maybe in ten or fifteen years we will see the digital platform differently. Still, right now the technology, as with all technologies, is making people think differently, and faster.

The debate about the horizontal nature of social media like Twitter and Facebook, and more broadly, of the internet itself, is an interesting one. However it is characterised less by a dialectic of ‘anarcho-twitterists’ on the one hand, and the cynics, both advocates and detractors of hierarchy and top-down organising on the other; than by an ill-defined synthesis of opinion somewhere in the middle.

What I think is definitely emerging, however, is a reified exploration of alternative methods of organising and communicating. This is not to say they will achieve anything like permanence or solidity: activist communities are inevitably transient, and, one hopes at least, responsive to their environment and sensitive to the efficacy of their tactics and methods. Equally, our horizontalising technology is still nascent: on the web, not five years ago, Myspace was king. Now it appears to have been largely muscled out, designated as a backwater of dodgy aesthetics and bands seeking fame and fortune. Who truly knows what will happen to the Web another five years down the line?

Similarly, smart phones and wireless internet are allowing people to communicate quickly, like wildfire, from the scene of a demonstration, countering, through a hundred corroborating sources, the narrative dictated to us by the trinity of Police, Government, and mainstream media. There are even iPhone apps designed to inform the mischievous activist of Police deployments in real time, so as to avoid their kettles.

Any analysis should avoid wrenching apart the digital from the physical. What happens on the web will often dictate events in the streets, and vice-versa. They are two sides to the same coin. It is with this in mind that I hope to analyse some of the protests and direct actions of the last few months.

@ is for Activism

Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture

Joss Hands

Examines the transformation of politics through digital media, including digital television, online social networking and mobile computing.

£17.99 only £16 on the Pluto site

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