The Birth of the Cyber Left

In an instant, the immaterial aspects of the financial capitalist system melted away, as the tightly held logic of neoliberalism came crashing inward. The world watched with fear and awe as the collapse of the speculative markets quickly exposed the entire financial system, and foundational institutions— imbued with all of the power and majesty of global capital—crumbled before our eyes. The price of the hubris, however, went beyond the boardrooms of Lehman Brothers, and in a few short months the grim realities of the crisis took a vicious toll on working people. Families lost their houses to fore- closure, elderly couples lost their life savings to the rapacious market, and working people lost their jobs and livelihood to the aggressive greed of an unchecked financial system.

In the shadow of the growing economic disaster, which unjustly meted out punishment on the most precarious, political leaders stepped in with massive bailouts, engineered by the very people who created the crisis, in an effort to save banks deemed “too big to fail.” And in time, as our collective memory waned, these same political leaders fixed their gaze on the meager support system of the poor and working class, demanding austerity budgets and calling for shared sacrifice. The sacrifice, however, was not shared, as the market rebounded for the few, while the growing legion of poor and work- ing people were left to shoulder the burden of the twenty-first century’s first global economic and human crisis.

While the financial collapse has heaped untold misery on the working class, this crisis, like those before it, has also presented real political opportunity. As people suffer and injustice reigns, trust in state power and financial markets has evaporated, and the ties that bind us to the current social and political configuration have loosened. With this social dislocation comes the possibility for uprising.

The Great Refusal, as Herbert Marcuse (1991) once called it, has begun to show itself, as organizers, activists, and everyday people across the world respond to the economic crisis and growing specter of poverty and inequality. In this “post-collapse” moment, we have digitalrebellionwitnessed new forms of organizing and protest that have rekindled the radical imagination. Beginning in 2009, communities from Cairo, Tunis, and Reykjavik to Santiago, Athens, and New York rose up, redrawing the political landscape and in some cases rebalancing the political scales. In some of these rebellions, dictators and their corrupt systems were swept asunder; in others, the struggle continues to this day; and in others still, a new narrative emerged that challenged the neoliberal logic that socializes risk while privatizing profit.

While the character of each of these struggles is distinct, some critical commonalities bind this cycle of resistance together as a diverse but singular moment of rebellion. Traits like the creative use of new media and social networks in resistance, the desire for meaningful democratic participation, the physical and virtual occupation of space, and the leadership of young people, who increasingly face dwindling job prospects and growing student debt. These patterned attributes help to form the silhouette of a new figure of resistance, a new sociopolitical formation.

Digital Rebellion is an attempt to map the underlying logic of this new figure of resistance as it has materialized across the world. I undertake this mapping exercise through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the Global Social Justice Movement from 1994 to 2006, with a particular focus on the indymedia movement. While indymedia and the Global Social Justice Movement precede the contemporary moment of struggle by less than a decade, in many ways the tactics and strategy of resistance in that period already seem quaint, as activists waged their fights using bullhorns, bulky Web sites, monodimensional mobile phones, and black balaclavas instead of Guy Fawkes masks. However, much like objects in a rearview mirror, the Global Social Justice Movement is much closer than it appears. It is my contention that the logic of struggle that developed through that period offers the necessary tools to understand the mental terrain of occupiers and Cairo combatants today.

At this broad level, extending the cyclical theory of social movements, in Digital Rebellion I argue that historical and sociocultural patterns connect different periods of political protest. Specifically, I argue that the patterns of struggle in a particular period are best understood as developing, in an ideal sense, through a multilateral dialogue between social-movement actors and both the past and present.

Examined from one perspective, social movements and social-movement actors are in conversation with the corporeal world in which they exist. Viewed through this materialist lens, we can see that a particular logic of resistance emerges in response to the social systems and social world of which it is a part. Thus, in the era of Fordist capitalism, revolutionary movements formed large centralized party-like formations that mirrored the economy of scale that was the dominant episteme of the time. Correspondingly, in the contemporary moment of informational capitalism, activists forge nimble, networked formations as a facsimile of the networked society they exist within. In this sense, movements both challenge and integrate, sometimes unconsciously, different elements of their social environs.

The logic of resistance in a particular moment, however, does not develop in a straightforward conversation between activists and their physical present. Instead, the logic and vision of resistance in a particular period2 also develop in dialectic tension with history, and specifically the previous stages of resistance. Along these lines, the Old Left and New Left were in constant, though sometimes hidden, dialogue3 about issues of structure, strategy, and composition, and as I argue throughout this book, contemporary social movements are also in dialogue with the history of resistance that has preceded it. This premise forms the theoretical underpinning of this book, which is that in order to appreciate the social-movement logic of a particular moment, one must understand this triangulated interaction between social-movement actors; the materialist present; and the long, unfolding history of resistance. Using this lens, we can then begin to trace the commonalities and differences between the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, on the one hand, and the Global Social Justice Movement or Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand.

Defining and Historicizing the Cyber Left

To get analytic purchase on the transformations in contemporary social movements, I introduce the term Cyber Left. Through this concept, I contend that we are on the cusp of a new stage in left-based social movements, enmeshed with the changing nature of new digital technologies and the globalizing economic order. I use the term Cyber Left to historicize this emergent mode of movement building, and I argue that the way activists have employed communication tools (from the Internet to cell phones) has shifted spatial and temporal configurations within movements, creating new possibilities for organizational structure, democratic governance, and media strategy.

With the growing fervor of technological utopianism coming on the heels of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, the use of the term cyber is admittedly complicated. To this end, I want to make clear that I do not use cyber to argue that social movements have moved online, nor do I suggest that social life has been transformed solely by the networking power of Facebook or Twitter, nor do I argue that this shift in the operations of social movements is necessarily positive. In fact, the most successful movements are still driven by face-to-face relationships, trust, analysis, a strong understanding of local concerns, leadership development, and on-the-ground organizing, as I discuss throughout this book. Instead, I use cyber as a descriptive term to define the novel set of processes and practices within twenty-first-century social resistance that are engendered by new technologies and in turn have enabled new possibilities for the scale, strategy, structure, and governance of social movements.…

While I use the term cyber to capture the new dynamics in contemporary movements, this is a study that is focused on chronicling the American left.5 Historians of the American left generally speak of two central phases of social- movement history in the United States. The Old Left, from the early twentieth century to the end of World War II,6 was influenced by Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution7 and principally focused on trade unionism, the development of political parties, and the central antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. In the postwar period, the U.S. government waged a war on critical Old Left institutions like the Communist Party, and this, alongside the horrors of Stalinism, led to the eventual collapse of the Old Left. Out of the ashes of the Old Left, however, the civil rights movement emerged and acted as a critical bridge to the New Left.9 In the 1960s, New Left institutions such as Students for a Democratic Society developed on the heels of the civil rights movement, while being shaped by Mao’s peasant-based revolution in China. Challenging the dogma of the Old Left, New Left activists questioned the central role of class and the industrial proletariat, articulating a host of concerns from gender and racial equality to ending the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism.10 The New Left in turn led to the birth and growth of the nuclear-disarmament movement, the environmental movement,11 the gay- rights movement,12 and later stages of the feminist movement.

Following these two broad stages of social movements, I contend through this research that we are seeing the outlines of a new phase, the Cyber Left, that has taken the shape of a globalized, digitized, radically democratic net- work formation. This new stage of resistance is grounded in the experiences and insights of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico. In 1996, the EZLN made a widespread call to activists, revolutionaries, and media makers to forge “a collective network of resistance against neoliberal- ism” and “a network of communication among all our struggles.” Out of this call and the vision and relationships it established came indymedia, People’s Global Action, the World Social Forum process, and many other networks and institutions that mark the initial stage of this period of struggle.

This is excerpted from Digital Rebellion:  The Birth of the Cyber Left. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press” .

Todd Wolfson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Trained as a socio-cultural anthropologist, his research focuses on the convergence of new media and social movements and he is author of numerous articles on social movements. Todd is also co-founder of the Media Mobilizing Project, which uses media and communications as a strategy for building a movement of poor and working people in Philadelphia and beyond. Todd is also on the leadership team of Progressive Philly Rising and he sits on the board of the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA. Todd’s research and community work has been supported by the Knight Foundation, Social Science Research Council, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Dodge Foundation amongst others.