Eliane Glaser writes: Two hundred years ago this month, groups of artisan cloth workers began to assemble at night on the moors around towns in Nottinghamshire. Proclaiming allegiance to the mythical King Ludd of Sherwood Forest, and sometimes subversively cross-dressed in frocks and bonnets, the Luddites organised machine-wrecking raids on textile factories that quickly spread across the north of England. The government mobilised the army and made frame breaking a capital offence: the uprisings were subdued by the summer of 1812.
Contrary to modern assumptions, the Luddites were not opposed to technology itself. They were opposed to the particular way it was being applied. After all, stocking frames had been around for 200 years by the time the Luddites came along, and they weren’t the first to smash them up. Their protest was specifically aimed at a new class of manufacturers who were aggressively undermining wages, dismantling workers’ rights and imposing a corrosive early form of free trade. To prove it, they selectively destroyed the machines owned by factory managers who were undercutting prices, leaving the other machines intact.
The original Luddites enjoyed strong local backing as well as high-profile support from Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein alludes to the industrial revolution’s dark side. But in the digital age, Luddism as a position is barely tenable. Just as we assume that the original Luddites were simply technophobes, it’s become unthinkable to countenance any broader political objections to contemporary technology’s direction of travel.
The promoters of internet technology combine visionary enthusiasm and like-it-or-not realism. So dissent is dismissed as either an irrational rejection of progress or a refusal to face the inevitable. It’s the realism that’s particularly hard to counter; the notion that technology is an unstoppable and non-negotiable force entirely separate from human agency. There’s not much time for political critique if you’re constantly being told that “the world is changing fast and you have to keep up”. Which is a bit rich given that politics infuses the arguments of even technology’s purest advocates.
As Slavoj Žižek has noted, the language of internet advocacy – phrases like “the unlimited flow of information” and “the marketplace of ideas” – mirrors the language of free-market economics. But techno-prophets also use the lingo of leftwing revolution. It’s there in books such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and in Vodafone’s slogan, “Power to You”; in the notion that blogs, Twitter and newspaper comment threads create a level playing field in the public debate; and it’s there in the countless magazine features about how the internet fosters grassroots protest, places the tools of cultural production in amateurs’ hands, and allows the little guy immediate access to information that keeps political leaders on their toes. This is not Adam Smith, it’s Marx and Mao.
In fact, both rhetorics – of the free market and of bottom-up emancipation – serve to conceal the rise of crony capitalism and the concentration of power and money at the top. Google is busily acquiring “all the world’s information”. Facebook is gathering our personal data for the coming world of personalised advertising. Amazon is monopolising the book trade. The abandonment of net neutrality means corporate control of the web. Once all our books, music, pictures and information are stored in the cloud, it will be owned by a handful of conglomerates.
At Open Democracy, Paul Rogers writes: The authorities are undertaking a legal and judicial counter-offensive against the “occupy” camps that have sprung up in central locations in New York and London. But scores of camps remain across north America and western Europe, part of a diffuse and dispersed phenomenon that has acquired a life of its own within a few short weeks.
These protests echo others earlier in 2011, including the turbulent actions in Greece and the extensive mobilisations in Spain (see “A time of riot: England and the world”, 11 August 2011). They also connect with developments elsewhere: the mass student demonstrations in Chile that moved from opposition to a failing education system to a much wider campaign against marginalisation, and the protests by middle-class Israelis against their more restricted life-chances (albeit such conditions are still far outranked by the great poverty in the nearby occupied territories, notably Gaza).
This upsurge of demonstrations is largely a response to the renewed economic crisis and to the enduring spectacle of financial institutions paying huge salaries and even larger bonuses to their elites while the majority of populations bear the brunt of government-imposed cuts. More broadly it recalls the large-scale anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s, not least around the Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) summits. This movement receded after 9/11 and the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – but it has now returned, albeit in a different guise, as a result of the accumulating economic crises of 2007-11.
These protests, demonstrations and movements may well be sustained or they may (at least in the short term) recede. Yet in a global perspective they reflect two processes that lend them deep importance. [Continue reading...]
Slavoj Žižek writes:
Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon.
We are told again and again that we are living through a debt crisis, and that we all have to share the burden and tighten our belts. All, that is, except the (very) rich. The idea of taxing them more is taboo: if we did, the argument runs, the rich would have no incentive to invest, fewer jobs would be created and we would all suffer. The only way to save ourselves from hard times is for the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. What should the poor do? What can they do?
Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.
There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were missing the obvious truth, just as the commentators on the riots have done. We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology: the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
Pankaj Mishra writes:
In India, tens of thousands of middle-class people respond to a quasi-Gandhian activist’s call for a second freedom struggle – this time, against the country’s venal “brown masters”, as one protester told the Wall Street Journal. Middle-class Israelis demanding “social justice” turn out for their country’s first major demonstrations in years. In China, the state broadcaster CCTV unprecedentedly joins millions of cyber-critics in blaming a government that placed wealth creation above social welfare for the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou last month.
Add to this the uprisings against kleptocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, the street protests in Greece and Spain earlier this year, and you are looking at a fresh political awakening. The specific contexts may seem very different, ranging from authoritarian China to democratic America (where Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, publicly denounced a “billionaire-friendly Congress” last fortnight). And the grievances may be diversely phrased. But public anger derives from the same source: extreme and seemingly insurmountable inequality.
As Forbes magazine, that well-known socialist tool, describes it, protesters everywhere are driven by “the conviction that the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class” (and the working class too, whose distress is not usually examined in Forbes).
Certainly, the strident promoters of globalisation – politicians, big businessmen, and journalists – will have to work much harder now to bamboozle their audiences.
For years now, the mantra of “economic growth” justified government interventions on behalf of big business and investors with generous tax breaks (and, in the west, the rescue of criminally reckless investors and speculators with massive bailouts at the taxpayer’s expense). The fact that a few people get very rich while a majority remains poor seemed of little importance as long as the GDP figures looked impressive.
In heavily populated countries like India, even a small number of people moving into the middle class made for an awe-inspiring spectacle. Helped by an entertainment-obsessed and “patriotic” corporate media, you could easily ignore the bad news – the suicides, for instance, of hundreds of thousands of farmers in the last decade. However, the carefully maintained illusions of globalisation shattered when even its putative beneficiaries – the educated and aspiring classes – began to hurt from high inflation, decreasing access to education and other opportunities for upward mobility.