Escalate Collective: a critique of a critique

The Escalate Collective has recently published its latest essay/communique/article/post about events on the 26th March demo which is definitely worth reading.

Escalate, a collective of writers and activists from within the University of London, seems to be the closest we have to Tiqqun here in the UK and at this particular time. For that they should be commended.

On reflection I think I prefer their first essay but in both communiques they unpick key issues unfolding within current events by charting a path direct through centre of the problem. And by that, I don't mean they adopt a middle ground as position for analysis. Rather, they split issues down the middle; break them open; expose the vacuity… I'll end the metaphor there. It's late and you get the idea.

What gets a big thumbs up from me is the inclusion of 'social media' in their list of targets for critique. Their analysis isn't always spot on but crucial contributions include the following:

Escalate challenge the misrepresentation of "social media as panacea". While this is a crucial criticism that addresses and undermines both pro- and anti-technology camp's arguments the collective also over-state the case somewhat. Let's unpack their critique.

Firstly, technology – and in particular Twitter and Facebook – are critiqued for being glorified as radical tools for emancipation. The collective writes:

"The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means."

It's their belief that this myth hides the reality that social media – incorporating their broader definition, "web-based media" – is of course a commodity. A commodity that young people consume and of course which is as radical as tie-dye t-shirts were for the Soixante Huitardes: "the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods."

In fact, it gets worse than this. Not only is social media a de-radicalised consumer commodity but it's a commodity whose consumption is undertaken as part of what Jodi Dean has termed 'communicative capitalism' – that is (perhaps stating it too strongly): "Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action" by grounding it in endless discussion, debate and content circulation.

Grounding this emergent concept in more classical Marxist terms, Escalate point out that: 

"Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends."

The initial criticism is arguably wide of the mark – although I utterly understand where the writers are coming from here. For instance, why pick out software corporations? Odd choice – software corps aren't really at the front-end of current political debate as they make software. I put this down to a misunderstanding.

In terms of PR agencies, I'm fairly confident I can say that my dalliances with a couple of very big PR firms' digital teams has shown me that a) many high-profile firms they are not involved in intentionally astro-turfing (to the point of proactively avoiding anything that could be mistaken – although this policy has not always prevented it) and b) "whole departments" in my experience means less than 30 and usually a lot less (the implication for me here is that we're talking 100s as per the Chinese Government's 50 Cent Army) and never the whole department working on a single client.

On the latter point of journalists and union reps I do agree. It is a solution offered by economic capital – perhaps a wider critique missed here: the volunteeristic power of social media is based on social capital. A significnat benefit in circumstances where social relationships are all that's needed to negotiate an outcome. But by injecting economic capital into the mix you get a relational imbalance and if that relational imbalance is desired to misdirect, destabilise or destroy networks of relationships then it can be highly effective – providing you have the resource to scale. Refer back to China's 50 Cent Army.

Escalate also reject another misperception perpetuated through the media and some enthusiastic activists and academics. That is, the binary of social media and horizontality. This is a long-standing bugbear: just because something occurs via the web or social media doesn't make it horizontal.

Yes, the rhizomatic structure of the web often sets the default organisational settings to non-hierarchical networks but care is needed to ensure this myth doesn't end up hiding more deeply set hierarchies and power relations. And lest we forget: horizontal organising can – and does – take place outside of virtually networked structures.

Linked to this, another major critique of social media arises, again from media and organisational misperceptions of what the social web is and how it functions.

Escalate argue:

"Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked."

While I broadly agree with their conclusion that the "perceived leaderlessness" within social media allows privilege (presumably time-based and technological knowledge) and capital power to allow leadership to emerge this statement is useful because it points to a wider theme that runs through much of Escalate's analysis of social media.

Namely that social media, Twitter, Facebook, "web-based media", etc are interchangable, homogenous wholes when in reality they aren't.

While this methodological short-cut still allows Escalate to make incisive and accurate critique of conteporary politics, media and capitalism, it means that there is arguably a much more deeper analysis and (potentially constuctive) critique that could be made.

I say potentially constructive because this is something I'm thinking and writing about at the moment: how analysis of the complexities of the social web and its components can be used to achieve a greater understanding of forms of resistance.

Perhaps now isn't the time to go into the detail, but perhaps take a look at this recent conference abstract  for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Finally – and most glibly – the collective's approach to writing anonymously overcomes some of the ego issues that definitely can be seen within the liberal/left blogo- and Twittersphere. It's a breath of fresh air and allows – IMHO – a much more radical exploration of contemporary issues to be broached.

 

 

 

 

*UPDATED* March 26th demo: some initial thoughts

This blog post sets out some of my thoughts from Saturday's demonstration against the Government's cuts agenda.

It should be taken in the context of my immediate reaction to some of the things I witnessed; my initial analysis and the resulting insights.

I'll also use it as an opportunity to develop some thinking around ideas related to my PhD, in particular theories of power and the media, using things I saw as case studies. I'll save these for a follow-up post.

What follows is, in part, a narrative and, in part, a series of first-hand accounts and analyses. It's been written quickly so my apologies for typos, errors, etc

Firstly, some observations

1. Mass turn out
Make no mistake, Saturday's TUC march was huge. Thus I was surprised to see the BBC reporting that the estimated figure was only 250,000 [EDIT: the BBC has now revised this to "250,000 – 500,000" which is possibly even more useless]. Frankly, I don't understand how they arrived at that figure. More below

2. The limits to social media showed
While social media and digitally networked activism provides radically different opportunities for movements (e.g. UKUncut growing from and organising around a hashtag) there were some limitations with the 'real-time' web on this demo. Although I should caveat that I used my smartphone sparingly to converse battery-life.

Firstly, I found it difficult to track everything that happened in real-time. This is perhaps less a limitation of social media and more a by-product of the sheer dynamism and fluidity of the demo. 'Real-time' on Twitter just wasn't real-time enough to keep pace with the speed things evolved on the streets.

Secondly, some technologies (at least the official Twitter iphone app I was using) struggled to function appropriately under the circumstances. So, for example, the official Twitter app pushes popular tweets (determined by the number of RTs) to the top of the timeline. Perhaps there's way of turning this off but it meant that the up-to-date information so essential in live situations wasn't instantly accessible. The anti-kettling site, Sukey, too while appearing very useful in mapping the situation on the streets also aggregates important tweets, but crucially without a time stamp.

Essentially, the point I suppose I'm making is that in very dynamic and fluid situations making sure real-time is real-time and knowing just what 'real-time' is becomes of paramount importance and I didn't feel the information I was getting was reliably timely.

Perhaps there's a need for an activist-led Twitter/online info tool that is built around quite specific needs.

As a footnote – and I have some thoughts I need to work up – SMS became a really useful too in this situation.

3. Massive black bloc
The size of the black bloc surprised me greatly. I'm no veteran activist but I was with some when we heard about the size of the black bloc and I think it's fair to say even they were surprised. Newsnight's Paul Mason, tonight said it was the biggest black bloc seen on the streets of the UK for a long time.

Speaking from personal experience, I recall seeing a small black bloc of no more than 20-30 during the G20 in 2009; and if you believe the tabloids these were possibly a European black bloc summit-hopping.

At the Mayday demonstration in Parliament Square in 2010 there was a similarly sized black bloc – or at least a group of activists dressed as a black bloc. From recollection they weren't active.

On Saturday, word on the street was that a black bloc of between 2,000 – 3,000 mobile around central London.

I've seen a similar number reported by activist media although a smaller number reported by the mainstream media [saw it somewhere but no link just yet]

Aside from the finer detail, I don't think I've ever seen such a significant black bloc in the UK.

3. The black bloc had very, very young elements
I mean seriously young. On the strand we passed a group of young people possibly 16-17 who were clearly 'blacked up' under their day-to-day clothes. The same scenario was repeated through-out the afternoon on Oxford Street.

4. These have possibly been 'radicalised' by the student demos
There's a very strong possibility, IMHO, that the younger elements of the black bloc have had their outlook on the police, state and capitalism changed as a result of a) government policy and b) their experiences from the student demos late last year.

These young people have had their perceptions of democracy (built up through education, media and recent prosperity) challenged by the reality of how liberal democracies in free-market regimes operate and the inter-relation between the state and police.

5. Black bloc violence wasn't mindless or unconnected to anti-cuts demos
It is a mistake to believe the media reports on this as they're based partly on police press releases and official statements and partly on internalised beliefs within which the media operate (more on this in the conclusion).

Reporting that claimed – as the BBC did – that the black bloc weren't connected to the wider anti-government protests are incorrect and misleading [EDIT: since reading the original BBC report I can now only find references to the black bloc as a 'separate group'].

Those in the black bloc were – from what evidence I saw – acutely aware of the reality of capitalism; the government's policies and agenda and its effect on people. This wasn't mindless vandalism. It was very mindful vandalism. Neither was it violence.

Secondly, some ideas and insights…
           
5. What is the role of the internet in supporting the black bloc phenomenon?
Thinking about this, the role of the Internet has been perhaps to play two significant roles:

  1. Educating people about role of the black bloc
  2. Connecting people keen to build affinity groups around black bloc tactics

Perhaps this is a facile point but without the internet, finding out about black bloc history and its tactics and then connecting with others sharing similar aims would be difficult.

For obvious reasons this activity traditionally would be based around small-scale affinity groups and learning would be a rare and practical experience.

For #26March there was a well publicised Facebook event for those wanting to take-part in black bloc tactics – with upwards of 1,000 – 2,000 cofirmed attendees reflecting the younger demograhic mentioned above [again, no link showing on facebook anymore]

Of course, using the Interent to research, plan and implement black bloc tactics will potentially open up other challenges such as online surveillance and data mining, but that's something for a separate post.

Some conclusions
I've got an embryonic conclusion to write up that ties some of these thoughts together within a framework of power and media but I'll save this for a follow-up post.

*UPDATE* I was hoping to get these concluding thoughts around media and power blogged shortly after this post – however, I need to get some more reading and writing done for my PhD and then hopefully I can come back to this line of thought with a more robust and radical argument.