Leveling the playing field: horizontal politics, technology and activism in 2011 (part 5)

Concluding the series on horizontal politics, digital technology and UK activism, Chris Browne draws together the non-hierarchical tendencies within the digital and ‘real’ worlds, finishing with an optimistic prediction of more direct action in 2011, both domestically and abroad.

Social media scrutinising Police narrative. Photo: tim.dalinian.jones@gmail.com

Social media and internet technology are to some degree changing the way people think and act. At the very least they have provided us with the means through which to counter the discourse of the police, government and mainstream media. More people are coming to realise, certainly, that this trinity of power and legitimacy do in fact offer us a particular discourse, rather than simply ‘the truth’.

For evidence to support this claim we needn’t look very far: 100 smart phones filming mounted police charges in streets filled with children; taking pictures of Jody McIntyre being forcibly dragged from his wheel chair at a demonstration; recording footage of Ian Tomlinson being beaten to the ground before suffering a fatal heart attack.

I believe that the diffusion of these technologies into the hands of more and more people, no longer the preserve of a wealthy elite, has had a profound effect on what happens in the organising of demonstrations, during the course of events, and in the postmortem.

Someone I respect a great deal within the activist community told me last week of his own theory, that the iconic image of Charles and Camilla’s car being attacked by demonstrators near Parliament Square had profound consequences in catalysing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The logic presumably runs that when members of an institution so emblematic as the Royal Family are no longer off limits as targets for public disaffection and anger then truly there’s nothing left that’s sacred.

As for the emergence of a growing horizontal politics within activism, I don’t believe that this moment of technological change is without credit. The internet is inherently a network running along a non-hierarchical logic. The torrenters, hackers, and shareware providers –whether dressed up in t-shirt and jeans; suits; or in high political values such as freedom of information and speech- have always made it nearly impossible for governments and corporations to successfully and entirely graft their hierarchical relations of production and consumption onto the virtual realm.

Whilst capitalism is both insidious and insane, it can sometimes feel as inexorable as nature: if the war for control of the internet is ultimately to be lost to government regulation and corporate control, in the present moment at least it offers exciting new approaches towards anarchist thinking and relationships.

Looking towards the rest of the year, the biggest demonstration of popular unity and anger will likely be the TUC’s rally on the 26th March. Of course, people should go to this, unless there’s something a little closer to home at the same time, but we must make sure we don’t start thinking of our resistance as existing only in these sporadic moments of nationally-orientated demonstration.

They should serve instead to give us focus and the psychological support of knowing that tens of thousands of other people are acting together in harmony, if not in unity, all around the country. After all, if the internet is damaging in one way, it is surely the atomization of society, making our interactions faster, yes, but without the much needed physical human contact that a huge demonstration can provide by the barrelful.

Whenever possible, our organising should be community based and locally orientated. Not only is this better environmentally, but it allows opportunities to strengthen and develop activist affinity groups and devote one’s time to more enduring constructive endeavours: maybe creating a co-operative vegetable garden in an abandoned lot; occupying your library, college, or university and holding a teach-in, where the curriculum is determined by the participants; running a community centre with cheap veggie food and a crèche so parents in need of a break can take one…

The date of the Royal Wedding (April 29th) might also seem like a ripe opportunity for a huge direct action. If the Royal Family has been struck once, then why not again? After all, everyone will have the day off work. Still, it seems unlikely that any huge plans will emerge. Activists are dedicated and usually very intelligent: it would be a PR disaster to take cues from the Telegraph and the Sun, whose raving mad, ignorant ramblings suggest clandestine anarchist groups are already plotting national sabotage.

Such claims are not to be taken seriously. In the case of the Sun’s article, a fundamental failure to grasp how autonomous groups work led them to take the word of one individual, with no representative authority, as proof of a massive conspiracy. Their quote from Green and Black Cross (GBC), the activist legal and medical support group I have been involved with recently, is also entirely erroneous: GBC has a policy of not talking to media.

Beyond any thought for PR, though, the Royal Family is unlikely to solicit any serious attack. This isn’t to say that radical leftists secretly go dewy-eyed at Britain’s most archaic institution, but simply that in the grand scheme of things they represent a rather benign inequity. If the bank holiday should be used for coordinated activism –and it should-, then it must continue to target the genuine villains of our time: the banks, the arms industry, the tax-dodging corporations, and the government that oscillates between utter indifference and active collusion with the above.

In the meantime UK Uncut groups continue to sprout up around the country, and in an exciting development, internationally too. ‘US Uncut’ has made the Uncut franchise trans-Atlantic, with a raft of actions planned across the USA; both Twitter accounts are a-buzz with word of ever more groups and actions. By and large they are well meaning and entertaining, containing a serious message of anger. Perhaps most excitingly, they represent an outright refusal to accept the idea that the rich and powerful know best, and are acting in our interest.

It is direct action; it is civil disobedience; and it is a loud, flash-mob disruption of the status quo. Every action builds the network and refines the strategy, creates the space for an alternative politics, and takes us one step away from the madness and injustice of the present system. If things continue on track, 2011 ought to be a significant year.

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