Sunday 20 December 2009

RATM and Internet Radicalism

Sony is toasting a chart double this weekend. The X Factor's Joe McElderry managed the number two spot in the UK top 40, while Rage Against the Machine hit number one with their anti-corporate anthem, Killing in the Name. One strange feature of the internet and media circus surrounding the contest was communists and anarchists acting as unpaid marketing folk for one of the world's largest record companies. What a lovely irony.

But I'm not interested in being sniffy about the result. Afterall, it's just a bit of festive fun and it raised £60 grand for Shelter. Plus RATM are a great band (I have many happy memories associated with their eponymous debut). But does the victory of RATM in the battle for singles' chart dominance signify anything deeper? Is it the cultural signal of the revolutionary noise to come? Of course not. RATM's Tom Morello is probably right when he says the campaign "tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK who are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another".

Some certainly didn't see it that way. I've seen more than one tweet that portrayed this as a battle in the cultural wars against global capital. As capitalism is an anarchic system of production and cannot meet all its ideological needs no more than it can provide everyone a decent standard of living, it occasionally finds its short term goals of turning a buck conflicting with its systemic preferences for bourgeois ideologies. Over the course of their career, Sony have made a mint out of RATM while simultaneously the latter have added to anti-corporate and counter-cultural trends in popular culture. That is the contradictory nature of the beast - and why "revolutionary" critiques of society that credit the media with all-encompassing brainwashing powers are so far off the mark.

Nevertheless, while this is no Gramscian victory over corporate cultural dominance and has zero bearing on the coming of the New Society, the campaign behind RATM is interesting in its own right. If only because, once again, it demonstrates the power - if it can be called that - of the emergent internet radicalism. We have seen before with the
Jan Moir debacle, Twitter vs Trafigura/Carter-Ruck, the storm around Daniel Hannan and the NHS, and the craze for turning your Twitter avatars green in solidarity with Iranian protesters how particular memes can seize hold of the internet-going public's imagination. With very little time and cost, people are able to register their protest/opposition without the rigmarole of standing in the rain, listening to boring speeches, and beating off the desperate efforts of Trot paper sellers. And what is more, in so doing everyone else can see them "making a stand" too.

What these issues have in common is that for those who participate in this form of internet radicalism, their proximity to the media means the actions they are protesting against appear more immediate and "relevant". This is why the Twitterati were outraged by Jan Moir's attack on Stephen Gately, but not so moved when
Ian Baynham was beaten to death in a homophobic hate crime. It's not because people don't give a shit - it's that media-saturated societies collapse social distance in online cyberspaces and via TV, managing in some cases to create an illusion of involvement - of having a stake in a programme, celebrity or media event. It's one reason why young folk are more likely to vote in Big Brother and X Factor phone-ins than in local elections, for example.

Seeing as politics and culture in this country are very heavily mediated (with political parties, companies and celebrities utterly obsessed with media management) this kind of radicalism of the spectacle can have a limited impact in the real world. But it is not and can never be a substitute for the real graft of political struggle.


Unknown said...

The link to Dan Hannan/NHS actually goes to the Trafigura post.

Phil said...

Fixed! There ought to be severe penalties for sloppy blogging.

Phil said...

media-saturated societies collapse social distance and, in some cases, create an illusion of involvement

No. Your own example suggests that the social distance between people in their daily lives remains very much in place - the only place where distance is collapsed is in the online world itself, which is the direct successor of the illusory realms of gossip and fandom. We're all together, as long as all we're doing is sitting at home staring at a computer screen (as I am now).

Phil said...

That's what I meant to say. Time for another re-edit!

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...


Only kidding of course.

Kit said...

"Jan Moir's posthumous attack on Stephen Gately"

Even though I think you may have written it correctly, I still read it as though she is was dead.

As for "limited impact in the real world," it is, unfortunately, all too limited. To use your examples: Who runs Iran? Jan Moir, the sub-editor, and editor, responsible - have they been sacked? Have Trafigura adequately compensated the victims of its negligence? Daniel Hannan on the dole? I fear we are powerless.

Phil said...

I think the dialectic between the online world and real life is a bit more subtle than mere powerlessness, Kit. I don't know how many UK residents are active on Twitter, but when a storm brews up it provides a snapshot of a cross section of public opinion, which politicians are keen to be seen to bow to. Labour have learned this lesson and are looking at various ways in which this can aid their campaigning strategies.

But it is a heavily mediated influence - only sustained collective action has the real potency to force social change.

Cheers for the 'posthumous' tip - it's been excised.

brother_f said...

I think if nothing else it showed a lot of (predominately) young people the power of collective action. The FB group was near enough a million strong towards the end, although I'd guess only 20% of the members were 'active', but that still near enough 200,000 people.

Kit said...

You're absolutely right. I just felt the need to share my pessimistic outlook.

Keep up the good work.

Kit said...

Okay, so I commented before brother_f's post was published.

So, if it shows young people the power of collective action - it shows how weak it is. Lots of people felt good about themselves, and felt as though they had a real impact, but that impact was extremely limited.

Whilst I thank Phil BC for pointing out the nuances, the reality is that the 'active' protesters are so close to powerless that the distinction is of little value.

It's the average man who matters. He doesn't follow international politics, know who Dan Hannan is, or do anything about Trafigura. To quote Sid Vicious “I've met the man in the street and he's a cunt”