Felix Stalder on 23 Oct 2000 18:50:25 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] LMD: The well-connected rich

[This article, from the current issue of the English edition of Le Monde
Diplomatique, is  forwarded with the kind permission of LMD. Please do not
distribute it beyond nettime.]


The well-connected rich

The demonstrations against the global economy - Seattle, Washington,
Millau, Prague - seem tuned in to the internet. But the form of
communication being promoted by "wired" protesters may have the effect of
consolidating the existing power structure rather than overturning it. Once
the craze for new technology has faded we may well find that the most
effective - and most democratic - forms of mobilisation are not necessarily
the most modern.

It was bound to happen. We can trade shares, plan our holidays, visit
libraries and handle our correspondence via the internet. So, sooner or
later, it had to become equally known as a means of combating the global
market. After all, non-conformists are not immune to the digital fantasies
that the media bombard us with.

But new technology doesn't change the lessons to be learned from history,
sociology and economics. Anyone wishing to fight the world order would do
better to understand the discussions that accompanied the growth of the
trade union movement than develop their electronic mailing skills. Naïve
"net-activists" who fail to realise this face three risks: they may
overlook the need for an appropriate place for protest (workplace, state,
planet); they may confuse people who are easy to contact with those who
wish to change the world; and they may forget to organise their actions
properly, diluting all their plans for social change in a flood of
well-meaning but ineffective initiatives. Jumping up and down on a chair
and chanting "network, network" is not really an answer.

Although there is no need to eulogise an (imaginary) "world public
opinion", the adversaries of the global market have certainly made their
presence felt since the breakdown of negotiations on a Multilateral
Agreement on Investment in 1998. Their action has two main targets - the
underhand manner in which economic policy is decided and the unspoken
complicity of mass media. This action has pinpointed the commercial,
financial and social issues involved in transforming the whole world into a
consumer commodity.

This rings like a reminder of one of the objectives of the Paris Commune.
On 22 March 1871, in an attempt to explain its idea of democracy to
electors, the central committee of the Paris National Guard stated: "Public
opinion watches over and discusses every move the members of the Assembly
make. They may be dismissed and held accountable at all times. Only when we
can see all that is going on each time our interests are affected, wherever
our fate is decided, then, and only then, will it be impossible to throttle
the Republic" (1).

The idea of an anti-authoritarian world organisation, rid of the state's
bureaucratic hierarchy, has well established antecedents in leftwing
thinking. Jean Jaurès and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon both celebrated the
emancipating (educational) role of mutual benefit funds, federations and
cooperatives. In a tribute to the democratic practice of the Paris Commune
and its realisation of the need for consistency between ends and means,
Karl Marx wrote in 1871: "The working class cannot simply lay hold of the
ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes" (2). On the
contrary, it must "do away with all the old repressive machinery" (3).
Surely the internet promises to do just that, or at the very least make the
machinery less central.

Confusing libertarian and free-market goals

It is certainly tempting to believe this each time one of the heads of an
international economic organisation is the target of protest. World Bank
president James Wolfensohn once complained that "People's ability to
organise has substantially increased. Information has a huge impact, even
if it is inaccurate. Wherever I go now, there are people saying that we
murder children, destroy the environment, and that every year the World
Bank makes billions of dollars in profits that are handed out to the rich
countries." The internet carries the news that so upsets Wolfensohn much
more often than the world's leading periodicals.

So should we cry "Long live the internet"? The answer inevitably takes the
form of a truism. The main effect of the internet is not to enable the
adversaries of neoliberalism to speak to the world. Much as any other means
of communication - printing, roads, railways - it may make it easier to
mobilise protest, but it is still largely given over to serving a new world
order. In view of the current balance of economic forces, it would be a
good idea to consider the internet's usefulness as a means of domination
(consumerism and social control) before demanding that it be perfected for
its value as a vector for virtual democracy.

The current buzzword may be "network", but although it conjures up dreams
of social internationalism for some, it gives others - who are much more
powerful - an appetite for mercantile interconnection. Of course, the
confusion between libertarians and free-marketeers is one of the features
of our times, exemplified by the centre-left generation in power in the
west (Clinton, Blair, Schröder, etc.), the media's favourite politicians
(such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit), and the changes that the internet has
undergone in recent years.

A whole range of viewpoints coexist, all of which share a blind devotion to
technology. A French member of parliament celebrated the "shift from
intermittent to continuous democracy" in the same breath as the possibility
of "voting with a mobile telephone, as part of a project sponsored by Matra
and Nokia". He concluded on a more sober note: "E-democracy can overcome
people's disaffection with politics" (4). After praising China where "the
Net is a genuine economic and social movement" an advertising trade weekly
detailed the main beneficiaries of this "social movement" - AOL, Yahoo,
Cisco, Compaq and Intel, and "above all the top venture capital investors"

Things must be going really well if Cisco's booming business has come to be
synonymous with worldwide democracy. In 1994 US vice-president Al Gore told
us that the internet was "forging a new Athenian age of democracy". Six
years later some of the global market's opponents now seem to agree with
him, claiming that the net "is encouraging an upsurge in civic awareness"
(6). In a rush of enthusiasm following a demonstration by 10,000 women in
Paris, a French militant prophesied, "Feminism has always been
international, but restricted to the rich. With the Net, things will change
and all women will be able to show their quiet strength" (7).

The current hotchpotch of journalistic clichés (e-democracy, e-voting,
politics dot com, interactive citizens, and so on) is reminiscent of the
debate on "free" radio stations in France in the 1970s. Despite their
amateur, non-profit origins they could not resist the temptation of
advertising revenue and stock market flotation for very long. Here again,
the aim is apparently to boost the sagging legitimacy of an increasingly
top-heavy, status-conscious system by recharging its civic and democratic

As Armand Mattelart puts it, "The techno-utopia is a highly effective
ideological weapon in the struggle to influence people and gain acceptance
for the free-market vision of the world order. [...] Short-sighted
techno-libertarians help to consolidate the simplistic representation of an
abstract, evil state, in contrast with an idealised civil society in which
truly sovereign individuals communicate freely" (8). On the pretext that it
needs to create an environment suited to the development of the internet,
the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has just updated
its stock of neoliberal recipes - competition, start-ups, venture capital,
adaptation of money markets to suit the needs of innovative firms, tax
incentives and so on. Are net-activists willing to pay that price?

But who actually gets to use the internet? According to two recent French
surveys, they are "socially well integrated and have benefited from recent
changes in the economy". And of course, "the number of working class
'netizens' is tiny" (9). The situation elsewhere is no different. According
to the most recent report by the UN Development Programme, 2.4% of the
world's population had access to the internet in 1999, but this concerned
0.8% of the inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean, 0.1% in
sub-Saharan Africa and 0.04% in southern Asia.

The same report stated that "Breakthroughs in technology, such as the
internet, can open a fast track to knowledge-based growth in rich and poor
countries alike, but at present benefit the relatively well-off and
educated: 88% of users live in industrialised countries, which collectively
represent just 17% of the world's population. The literally well connected
have an overpowering advantage over the unconnected poor, whose voices and
concerns are being left out of the global conversation" (10).

Under the circumstances filling a hard disk with information, then
circulating it to e-mail addresses in Peru, India and a handful of US
campuses, may bolster the illusion of belonging to a worldwide fraternity.
It may also suggest that holding information is equivalent to taking
action, and may compensate for the lack of strategic thinking and fudge the
issue of organising protest by simply juxtaposing it. But it is a very far
cry from "planetary democracy".

Living collective experiences together

There is nothing new about the temptation to tell the lower classes that
their time is up and restrict power and the right to contest its use, to
the well-to-do. A quarter of a century ago Christopher Lasch was one of the
first people to decipher the pseudo-radical discourse that justified
political and social exclusion of the under-classes, by alleging that "new
social movements" had emerged - generally supported by the middle classes -
while various "diseases" - invariably associated with the working class -
ran rife (nationalism, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, homophobia).

The current obsession with all things global and mobile has the same
result: "The powerful cannot stay still, the powerless stay put. The
immobility of one category is necessary to the mobility of the others.
[...] By staying put the 'little people' maintain the presence of the
'great ones', who cannot be everywhere at the same time, and take care of
the bonds the latter have formed" (11).

Manuel Castells rightly claims that "the most sophisticated features of
interactive communication are the privilege of the most highly educated,
prosperous segment of the population in the richest, most highly educated
countries" (12). So what is left for traditional forms of political

In a study of the 10,000 demonstrations held in France in 1980-90, Olivier
Fillieule established that political involvement has changed less than was
suggested. He was able to demolish the idea, "conveyed by the media and
people in-the-know, that political parties and trade unions no longer
played the same role as the representatives of specific interests" (13).

For one thing, protest activity is not characterised "by extreme fluidity,
with individual involvement fluctuating as circumstances change". Moreover,
militant action is not the work of people operating "outside the
traditional movements", for "workers constitute the group most frequently
involved in demonstrations." Last, "the largest gatherings are the ones
defended by trade unions. The so-called 'post-materialist' movements are
not really convincing, regardless of whether they focus on social mores,
the environment, abortion rights, pacifism or even politics in general.
These movements are generally supported by tiny groups" (14).

Nicholas Negroponte (see article by Philippe Breton in this issue) recently
said "We will socialise inside digital neighbourhoods where physical space
is no longer relevant". Fortunately, protest action will very probably
continue elsewhere. And it will involve the collective experiences of
people acting together, in the same place, with meetings, demonstrations,
meals, distribution of pamphlets and newspapers, crowds. As, for example,
was the case with the non-digital demonstrations in France at the end of
1995. These gatherings will continue to occur in a given place, shaped by
past history, acting for (and with) large social groups with low mobility
and poor "connections". Nor do the latter imagine that new technology will
put an end to their isolation. They will continue to resist, not because
they are at last connected to some planetary network, but because their
social experience, militant activity and understanding of the world have
shown them how urgent it is to refuse a "digital" revolution whose main
effect would be to perpetuate the power of the traders and masters.


(1) Quoted in "Non, la Commune n'est pas morte!", Alternative libertaire,
n° 230, summer 2000.

(2) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, International Publishers, New York,

(3) Friedrich Engels, Postscript to The Civil War in France, International
Publishers, New York, 1933.

(4) André Santini, Libération, 21 April 2000.

(5) CB News, Paris, 3 April 2000.

(6) Quoted by Libération, 28 June 2000.

(7) Florence Montreynaud, Le Monde, 20 June 2000.

(8) Le Monde de l'éducation, April 1997.

(9) Le Figaro Magazine, 20 May 2000, and CB News, Paris, 3 July 2000.

(10) UNDP, Human Development Report 1999.

(11) Luc Boltanski and Eve Chapiello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme,
Gallimard, Paris, 1999, pp. 445-449.

(12) Manuel Castells, La Société en réseaux. L'Ere de l'information,
Fayard, Paris, 1998, p. 406.

(13) Olivier Fillieule, Stratégies de la rue : Les manifestations en
France, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1997.

(14) Ibid.

Nettime-bold mailing list