Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

Wolfson examines the origins of Indymedia, its trajectory and final implosion as a kind of symbol of the promise and limitations of “horizontalism”, a term that is simply shorthand for a fairly coherent and carefully worked out strategy for the mass movement. As an
digitalrebellionactivist himself who contributed time and energy to Indymedia, it is clear that he was committed to its success and not just an outside observer passing judgment. One might add that if the rest of academia was half as dedicated, the left would be in much better shape today.

He begins by chronicling the tragic death of Brad Will, an Indymedia activist who died with a videocamera in his hands in Oaxaca, Mexico while filming poor people protesting. Even after the cops shot him in the chest one minute before the video ends, the camera rolls on.

Indymedia was more than a people’s Internet-based news alternative to the capitalist media. It was a movement that incorporated many of the ideas that were prevalent in the Global Justice movement and that continued into Occupy Wall Street.

With chapters all across the world, Indymedia tried to strike a balance between local autonomy and group cohesion—no easy matter. Chapter four, titled “Structure: Networks and Nervous Systems” goes into considerable and fascinating detail about how young activists tried to develop an organizational model that was geared to the grass roots movements they participated in. The chapter begins with a telling epigraph by Alex Ross, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department: “The Che Guevara for the twenty-first century is the network.”

The chapter begins with some of Wolfson’s brisk reporting on the role played by Indymedia at the February 15, 2003 protest in Philadelphia against the war in Iraq. In contrast to the capitalist press that habitually undercounted the number of protesters and relegated coverage to the back pages, Indymedia rose to the occasion and provided on-the-spot reports all across the world. It was this type of response that would ultimately inspire an outlet like Vice Magazine that despite its rough around the edges appearance (and ironically perhaps because of it) could attract billions of dollars from investors. For young people, something like Vice is the anti-Brian Williams even though the corporations that made him possible are circling Vice like buzzards, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. (We should never forget that Murdoch bought the Village Voice in 1977. For him, profits count more than politics.)

Coverage of February 15th was carried out by Independent Media Centers (IMC), the local group of media activists that were the counterpart of branches in my Old Left SWP that were controlled down to the tiniest political and organizational detail by party headquarters in New York. If someone farted at a meeting in Houston, the national office would conduct an investigation to expose the smeller. Indymedia was determined to avoid such a verticalist straightjacket.

The solution was to create a network of IMC’s that had no “national office”. For those committed to a non-centered network, there are various options on how to implement it ranging from the relatively centered star structure (not a star in the sense of Katy Perry but a formation that has a central hub that distributes information throughout the network) to the all channel network that lacked a center. Indymedia went with the all channel network, something that befits the anarchist mood of many of its participants.

A combination of organizational dysfunction and political unclarity led to a serious crisis in 2002, one that would have long-lasting effects on Indymedia. It erupted after the Ford Foundation offered a grant intended to fund regional conferences. When the Argentine IMC heard about this, they raised bloody hell since the Ford Foundation was in cahoots with the CIA, responsible for assisting the dictatorship in Argentina that killed tens of thousands of their countrymen. The Ford Foundation also spent money to corrupt the Black Panther Party and the Global Justice movement. Reading this account brought me back to the days of my board membership in Tecnica, a volunteer program for Nicaragua that relied heavily on foundation grants. We applied for but never got money from the Ford Foundation. There was little fear in Tecnica that we would “sell out” since most of the people in the leadership were case-hardened revolutionary socialists who took inspiration from Lenin boarding a German imperialist train to return to Russia in 1917.

But for Indymedia it was an acid test. Instead of grappling with the political questions of funding, everything turned on the question of organizational procedure with some arguing against the Argentines on the basis that the Ford money would go to local chapters. How dare anybody challenge local autonomy? After months and months of wrangling over the question on listserv’s, the fight ended with very little sense of a satisfactory resolution. Ironically, it was the use of the Internet that frustrated their hopes. The technology might have helped to link people up across continents but at a certain cost.

One participant in the debate put it this way: “The globe spanning email lists are mostly useless for this sort of thing. It would be a good thing to refrain from using them for any sort of conflict resolution. Face to face is where life happens. It is real. Virtual life has little power. It is empty.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a kind of techno-optimism that failed to anticipate how such a crisis could develop. Wolfson refers frequently to Manuel Castells, arguably the most breathlessly enthusiastic of all the Internet prophets. He is particularly excited by the idea that the Internet could create the conditions for a “leaderless movement” as if our problem is leaders rather than influence. Frankly, I miss having someone around like Martin Luther King Jr. That is obviously why he was assassinated.

While by no means engaged with technical schemas, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau developed a brand of Marxism that was hospitable to the horizontalist agenda. They argued that the working class was no longer the agent of change and proposed “radical democracy” as an alternative to obsolete notions of socialist revolution. The agent of change would now be disparate social movements united on the basis of having a common enemy and deploying a “swarm intelligence” to overcome the elites. It was the theoretical equivalence of the title of Paul Kingsworth’s study of the Zapatistas: “One No, Many Yeses”.

Since Mouffe and Laclau, as well as many of those they influenced from John Holloway to Hardt/Negri, were icons of the new networked movements that eschewed electoral politics that were regarded as either useless or reactionary, it is of some interest that they are regarded as the intellectual forefathers of Syriza and Podemos according to Dan Hancox whose “Comments are Free” article in the Guardian maintained:

Throughout his academic career, most of which he spent as professor of political theory at the University of Essex, Laclau developed a vocabulary beyond classical Marxist thought, replacing the traditional analysis of class struggle with a concept of “radical democracy” that stretched beyond the narrow confines of the ballot box (or the trade union). Most importantly for Syriza, Podemos and its excitable sympathisers outside Greece and Spain, he sought to rescue “populism” from its many detractors.

The operative term here is “narrow confines of the ballot box”. If you think in terms of irreconcilable opposites, the growth of Syriza and Podemos can appear confounding but only if you cannot see their connection to the street protests that shook Greece and Spain for the better part of a decade. It was to the everlasting credit of Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias to see the need to create parties that could challenge the ruling class on its own terms, namely the right to control the state on behalf of the exploited and the dispossessed. The occupations, protests, general strikes, and even the violent combat in the streets were incapable in and of themselves of putting people back to work but they were like bombardments that weakened the enemy’s defenses to the point that its fortress could be overrun.

Todd Wolfson’s book is a serious and well-researched case for reconnecting the new network-based movements with older traditions of struggle such as the labor and civil rights movement with an emphasis on the working class. While nobody would ever discount the brilliance of populist slogans that drew a line between the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, as timely in its way as the Bolshevik’s “Peace, Bread and Land”, the strategic emphasis must be on building parties that can unite people in struggle throughout society and ultimately on a global basis.

While most of his book extols the great accomplishments of Indymedia and the Global Justice movement, he makes sure to put forward his criticisms in no uncertain terms:

While every cycle of protest comes to an end, it is important to mark the breakthroughs and the problems with Indymedia and the larger Cyber Left’s logic of resistance organized around horizontality. The core logic and strategy of the Cyber Left played a significant role in the inability of the Global Social Justice Movement to build long-term power. I will point to four interrelated, core problems: (1) a retreat from class and capitalism as analytic and political categories, (2) a tendency toward technological determinism, (3) an anti-institutional bias, (4) no emphasis on political education and leadership development. The first problem is that contemporary social-movement theorists and activists of the Cyber Left tend to downplay capitalism and class as central analytic categories. This tendency developed because of the perceived problems with the praxis of Marxism as it operated in actually existing communist nations and communist and socialist movements.

As someone who has written numerous articles on the actually existing socialist movements, including for CounterPunch, I will end this article on a contrarian note and defend Lenin, a symbol for many of everything that is wrong with “verticalism”. To a large part, this is not poor Lenin’s fault but the fault of those who created the monstrosity called “Leninism”.

Earlier in this article I referred to Hilary Clinton’s aide describing the network as the Che Guevara of the twenty-first century, which taken at face value might encourage young leftists to sign up for Microsoft training classes posthaste. In fact, it was Che Guevara’s mistake to schematically apply rural guerrilla warfare as if Cuba could be cloned in Bolivia.

This is the same mistake that was made with “Leninism”. For nearly eighty years the left tried to imitate Lenin’s party, even to the point of incorporating an iconography that made no sense to an American worker. What would a hammer and sickle mean to someone working on a computer-controlled lathe or in the cab of a five-ton John Deere tractor?

Lenin had essentially the same problem in the early 1900s that the left has a century later, namely how to organize the scattered radical movement into a formidable power that could confront and ultimately defeat the enemy. His hope was that a newspaper called Iskra could do the job. Referring to the need for a newspaper that was nation-wide in scope, he wrote in “What is to be Done”:

Does this not clearly illustrate our amateurism? Does this not clearly show that our revolutionary organisation lags behind the spontaneous growth of the movement? If the same number of issues had been published, not by scattered local groups, but by a single organisation, we would not only have saved an enormous amount of effort, but we would have secured immeasurably greater stability and continuity in our work.

If Lenin were alive today, I doubt that he would go near any left group that had hammers and sickles festooning their newspaper or website. It is also likely that he would also avoid any described as “Marxist-Leninist”. He would probably warn against the use of a newspaper when the Internet was available, especially when the class enemy was also moving away from print.

But the priority would be on uniting people and not on technological determinism as if Facebook pages could ever take the place of a well organized and politically steeled working class. They certainly will interpenetrate each other on the long, difficult but necessary task of abolishing private ownership of the means of production but in the final analysis it is the unified and class-conscious workers movement that will change history.




Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.