Saturday 24 August 2013

Internet Activism, Politics and Protest

I just want to make some points about this article by Joe Rivers that appeared on the New Statesman website today.

1. Despite its title, 'Let's stop pretending internet activism is a real thing', it's not really about that at all. I can only assume it was subbed with that heading to pick up a few Facebook likes and retweets on what is traditionally a slow day for all bloggers. But the idea the internet and social media particularly offers a facsimile of activism is absolutely nothing new. Remember 2009's battle for the Christmas Number One? An internet-based grassroots movement managed to send Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name of to the top spot at the expense of that year's long-forgotten X-Factor clone. Hardly up there with the storming of the Winter Palace, it still captured the imagination of thousands who indulged this foray into subversive shopping. It was a simulacrum of activism. But even at the end of the last decade this sort of activity was old hat. Go back to the initial wave of activist uses of the internet in the 1990s and you will find plenty for whom Usenet debates were a substitute for activity.

2. Internet activism is a 'real thing' when it is part of what one does as an activist. Joe demonstrates this quite well with how social media has facilitated the coming together of a new wave of feminist activism. It certainly has proponents and detractors who prefer to fight for women in 140 characters or less, but it is a movement mobilising and inspiring tens of thousands around all kinds of activities and, of course, it is one that has proved both media savvy and media friendly. Speaking personally, when not treating lucky readers to my fantastic taste in music this blog is about producing a critical understanding of the world and pushing labour movement politics and activism. I only tend to respect those bloggers, writers and Twitter celebs who engage with the world beyond their monitor screen, because I do. And if I and many, many others can there's no excuse for those the internet has provided a large audience not to get down and dirty with campaigning.

3. Joe says there's "not enough" activism. Sure, we could always do with more people doing stuff. After all, as much as our honourable members pay lip service to the idea the one thing most of them dread is an active and critical citizenry. However, a lot of what does go on just doesn't get media coverage. The campaign to save Stafford Hospital did get press and TV slots because of the high profile failure of its management and the tragic consequences they entailed. Yet while that was (and is) going on, dozens of other groups have mushroomed to defend service provision at their hospitals. Likewise saving children's centres, participation in community asset transfers, running food banks, protesting closures, strikes and solidarity activity, organising residents' associations, all this sort of unglamorous stuff flies right under the national media's radar because, for whatever reason, they don't find it interesting. For example, how many reports have you read flagging up tonight's mass sleep out protest against the bedroom tax?

4. Joe rightly notes turn out in general elections looks to be on the up. Likewise, young people are more interested in politics than they were a decade ago, at least according to this study from 2011. Furthermore there is a core of the UK's adult population - some 36% of people - who are responsible for just shy of 90% of all volunteering activity. A sizeable minority are far from "apathetic" and actively contribute to the country's civic life in some way.

5. His point that there is too much 'anti' stuff is true. But is this symptomatic of a diminution in the "quality" of protest and social movements in Britain? I don't think so. In the era of rapacious and aggressive capital inaugurated by Thatcher's election in 1979 most, if not all the big struggles have been defensive and therefore anti-something. The Miners. Wapping. CND and Greenham Common. The Poll Tax. Iraq. Tuition Fees. All key moments in the modern history of protest, all of them defensive. Social movements are always conditioned by the opportunities afforded them by the wider environment, and the circumstances that threw them together. To pass from defensive into offensive, or positive struggles requires that they are occasionally successful and 'win', and that there is something that can condense these victories and integrate them into a wider (political) programme.

6. You can moan about inadequate rates of political and civic participation until the cows come home. The real challenge, the proper test of anyone's mettle is actually doing something about it.

1 comment:

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